Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., listens as Vice President Mike Pence answers a question during the vice presidential debate Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, at Kingsbury Hall on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, Pool)

‘Law and order’ vs. COVID-19 chaos: Pence, Harris meet in Utah in VP undercard debate

WASHINGTON, Wash. — Sen. Kamala Harris took the fight to Vice-President Mike Pence right out of the gate Wednesday, savaging the Trump administration’s “incompetence” and “ineptitude” in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The novel coronavirus was the first topic broached in the 90-minute vice-presidential debate in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Harris wasted no time in taking advantage of the fact that the head of the much-maligned White House task force was sitting across from her.

“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” she said.

Harris followed up with a laundry list of grim statistics: more than 210,000 dead, more than 7 million cases, one in five businesses shuttered and more than 30 million unemployment claims.

And she made note of Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward’s tape-recorded revelations that Trump knew in February how serious the crisis could be, but kept it to himself.

“They knew what was happening, and they didn’t tell you,” she said into the camera. “They knew, and they covered it up.”

Pence, confronted with a question from moderator Susan Page that noted the U.S. death toll is more than twice that of Canada, countered with a familiar message.

In his trademark baritone, he credited Trump with buying precious time by shutting down travel from China back in January ⏤ a move Joe Biden opposed, he noted ⏤ and praised Americans for the sacrifices they have made over the course of the crisis.

And he insisted Trump kept the potential scope of the pandemic out of the public eye to avoid inciting panic.

“From the very first day, President Donald Trump has put the health of Americans first,” he said, Harris gently shaking her head, a smirk on her face.

Asked to lay out the Biden plan for dealing with the outbreak should he take office next year, Harris described a national contact-tracing strategy and a plan to fast-track vaccines, but stopped short of mentioning a mask mandate or further lockdowns.

“It looks a little bit like plagiarism,” Pence said, “which is something Joe Biden knows a little bit about” ⏤ a reference to a controversy that effectively ended Biden’s presidential ambitions in 1987.

Pence and Harris debated at a distance of nearly four metres and through two layers of clear Plexiglas, a visible reminder of the threat of COVID-19.

Throughout, Pence did his best to defend Trump and radiate common sense as a counterpoint to the daily chaos of the president, who called catching the virus a “blessing from God” in a video earlier Wednesday.

He cited the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement as one of the administration’s singular victories, a counterpoint to Harris’s charge that Trump has only wreaked havoc on America’s relationships with its international partners.

And he noted that Harris voted against the agreement in the Senate, one of only 10 senators who opposed the deal.

“It was a huge win for American auto workers. It was a huge win for American farmers, especially dairy in the upper Midwest,” Pence said.

“You said it didn’t go far enough on climate change. You put your radical environmental agenda ahead of American auto workers and ahead of American jobs.”

Pence went into Wednesday’s debate facing slightly lower expectations, given Harris is a former prosecutor and California attorney general with a slicing, procedural style.

But with polls suggesting higher stakes for Pence, given a slide in support for Trump since last week’s insult-laden confrontation with Biden, he brought out the big guns.

Pence’s special guests included Carl and Marsha Mueller, whose daughter Kayla was killed in Syria in 2015 ⏤ a curtain call of sorts after their gut-wrenching speech in August during the Republican National Convention.

On Wednesday, which happened to be the 19th anniversary of Operation Enduring Freedom, two members of the Islamic State militant group were indicted and returned to the U.S. on charges they helped abduct, torture and murder four American hostages from 2012 to 2015, including Kayla Mueller.

Pence related the story of the family’s efforts to work with the Obama-Biden administration to rescue Mueller, describing it as a mishandled, delayed effort that missed its chance by just two days.

“Her family says, with a heart that broke the heart of every American, that if President Donald Trump had been president, they believe Kayla would be alive today,” said Pence.

Harris could only acknowledge the tragedy.

“I know about your daughter’s case, and I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” she said to the couple off-camera.

“What happened to her is awful. And it should have never happened. And I know Joe feels the same way. And I know that President Obama feels the same way.”

She pivoted to Trump’s record of denigrating soldiers and veterans, a charge that Pence took pains to denounce.

“President Donald Trump not only respects but reveres all of those who serve in our armed forces, and any suggestion otherwise, it’s ridiculous.”

Voters on both sides of the partisan divide are paying more attention to the running mates than they have in the past, not least because of the age and health of the presidential candidates themselves.

Biden is 77, and the Trump campaign has done its best to depict him as a frail old man with neither the stamina nor the smarts to be commander-in-chief.

The 74-year-old Trump, who tested positive Friday for COVID-19, has been trying mightily ever since to depict himself as a president at the peak of his power.

COVID-19 has been running rampant through the West Wing in the days since Trump tested positive last week before spending three chaotic days at Walter Reed National Military Health Center.

Trump has been shrugging off the crisis ever since, pulling the plug on congressional efforts to negotiate a new economic stimulus package and demanding the effort be tabled until after the election.

Then, despite the fact he’s likely still infectious, Trump went back to the Oval Office on Wednesday and promised on Twitter to offer up the experimental drug cocktail he credits with his recovery.

Coronavirus

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