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California Senator Kamala Harris gestures after Vice-President Mike Pence interrupted her during Wednesday's debate.Brian Snyder/Reuters

Amidst a backdrop of a widening COVID-19 outbreak at the White House, Mike Pence and Kamala Harris added a dash of civility Wednesday night into a frenetic presidential campaign.

Seated 12 feet apart behind plexiglass barriers at the University of Utah, the Vice-President and California Senator clashed for 90 minutes over the pandemic, police brutality and foreign affairs. The debate offered what some believe is a preview of a potential presidential match-up four years from now.

In her debut debate as the first woman of colour on a major party’s presidential ticket, the California Senator attacked Mr. Pence for the Trump administration’s failures on the pandemic, while repeatedly scolding the Vice-President for interrupting her.

With President Donald Trump recovering in the White House after testing positive for COVID-19, Mr. Pence shifted into the Republican campaign spotlight. At turns insulting and deferential, he criticized Ms. Harris for her law enforcement record as a former state attorney-general and warned of tax hikes and environmental regulations under a Joe Biden presidency.

Analysis: Some, but fewer interruptions: Harris and Pence displayed strong bearings and made sensible remarks

Opinion: That was weird: Moderator failure and a fly dominate vice-presidential debate

Analysts suggested the performances would play well with the campaigns' voter base, but would be unlikely to move the needle in the race. “Both of the vice-presidential candidates will come away from this debate claiming victory, and both avoided any major gaffes or blunders that would do damage to their ticket’s chances with voters,” said Mitchell McKinney, director of the Political Communication Institute at the University of Missouri.

Here, our experts weigh in on highlights from the vice-presidential debate:

Pandemic response is a “failure of leadership”

Ms. Harris quickly bombarded Mr. Pence on the Trump administration’s mishandling of the pandemic, which has infected more than seven million in the U.S. and sparked an escalating crisis in the White House.

The Democratic nominee avoided direct attacks on Mr. Trump for flouting safeguards like wearing a mask. Instead, Ms. Harris focused on the country’s high number of COVID-19 deaths, repeatedly casting the pandemic as a crisis of leadership.

“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” she said, pointing to Mr. Pence’s role as chair of the White House coronavirus task force. “Whatever the Vice-President is claiming the administration has done, clearly it hasn’t worked when you’re looking at 210,000 dead bodies.”

Mr. Pence countered by claiming that the pandemic would have been far worse if Mr. Trump had not restricted travel from China and accused Mr. Biden of stealing the administration’s pandemic-response plans.

“The reality is, when you look at the Biden plan it reads an awful lot like what President Trump and I and our task force have been doing every step of the way,” he said. “It looks a little bit like plagiarism, which is something Joe Biden knows a little bit about.”

The remark was a nod to a scandal where Mr. Biden lifted passages from a speech by a member of the British Labour Party, which sank his 1988 presidential bid.

Ms. Harris also went after Mr. Trump over a New York Times investigation that found the President had paid just US$750 in income taxes in 2016 and 2017 and had amassed US$400-million in debt, suggesting his finances may have compromised his decision-making. “It would be really good to know who the President of the United States, the commander-in-chief, owes money to,” she said. “The American people have a right to know what is influencing the President’s decisions.”

In an effort to remind voters of the double standard facing women in politics, Ms. Harris repeatedly pointed out Mr. Pence’s efforts to interrupt her. “Mr. Vice-President, I’m speaking. I’m speaking, okay?” she said more than once.

The California Senator’s attacks on the Trump administration’s botched response to the pandemic were effective, but she could have spent more time driving home the human toll of 210,000 U.S. deaths, said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University.

“She had a chance to really put flesh-and-blood on that 210,000 and talk about the grandparents who died in agony and the people who died without being able to have their loved ones next to them,” he said. “That is something that really needed to be underscored dramatically.”

Stacking the court

Mr. Pence found his most effective attacks in raising questions about whether a Biden administration would push to expand the number of judges on the Supreme Court.

The Republican-controlled U.S. Senate is expected to begin confirmation hearings for the nomination of Justice Amy Coney Barrett next week, a move that will give conservative judges a majority on the nine-member court.

Mr. Pence accused Ms. Harris of supporting calls by some Democrats to add more justices to the court. “The American people are voting right now and they’d like to know if you and Joe Biden are going to pack the Supreme Court if you don’t get your way in this nomination,” Mr. Pence said.

Ms. Harris steered the conversation to Trump administration appointments to other court vacancies. “Did you know of the 50 people President Trump appointed to the Court of Appeals for lifetime appointments, not one of them is Black?” she asked.

“I just want the record to reflect she never answered the question,” Mr. Pence countered.

That moment should play particularly well with Republican voters, said political historian Donald Critchlow, Katzin Family Foundation Professor at Arizona State University. Many voters see control of the Supreme Court as more important than who wins the White House.

“She just did not answer the question,” Prof. Critchlow said. “If you look at the polling on this, I think most Americans are opposed to trying to change the court. So that’s the issue that plays to the Republican’s favour.”

Dodging the question

Both debaters spent much of their time deflecting questions from moderator Susan Page of USA Today.

“They did what I call ‘dismiss and pivot,’” said Sam Nelson, who directs the debate program at Cornell University. “What you do is you say: ‘Here’s what this question is really about.’ You state something that’s different from the question and then you pivot to your strengths.”

Neither Ms. Harris, nor Mr. Pence directly answered questions on whether their campaigns had discussed what would happen if either Mr. Trump or Mr. Biden dies or becomes incapacitated while in office.

Mr. Pence dodged the question by criticizing Ms. Harris for saying she would not receive a COVID-19 vaccine endorsed by Mr. Trump, only one approved by scientists. “That fact that you continue to undermine public confidence in a vaccine – if a vaccine emerges during the Trump administration – I think is unconscionable,” he said.

Asked the same question, Ms. Harris instead offered up a personal biography, sharing her story as the daughter of immigrants who rose to become the first Black woman elected Attorney-General of California. “I think Joe has asked me to serve with him because he knows that we share a purpose, which is about lifting up the American people,” she said.

Yet in the midst of a pandemic, that question has loomed large over the presidential race. Mr. Trump will be 74 on inauguration day and Mr. Biden will be 78.

“It’s a very delicate, very dark issue. Neither side has any interest in bringing up mortality as far as two men in their 70s are concerned,” Prof. Baker said. “So I think that there was sort of an unspoken pact that it just wouldn’t be pursued.”

Asked whether he would accept a “peaceful transfer of power” after the election, Mr. Pence blamed Congressional Democrats for not respecting the 2016 election by voting to impeach the President earlier this year. “When you talk about accepting the outcome of the election, Senator, your party has spent the last 3.5 years trying to overturn the results of the last election,” he said.

Ms. Harris answered the question by urging Democrats to head to the polls. “Please vote,” she said. “Vote early, come up with a plan to vote.”

Both also sidestepped questions on the U.S. relationship with China. Ms. Harris argued that Mr. Trump’s tariff battle with China had cost the U.S. hundreds of thousands of jobs. “You lost that trade war,” she said.

“Lost the trade war with China? Joe Biden never fought it,” Mr. Pence said, before blaming China for the coronavirus.

Two visions of America

Far more effectively than their presidential counterparts a week earlier, Ms. Harris and Mr. Pence laid out campaign platforms that offered up drastically opposing views on the direction of the country when it comes to issues such as abortion and racial justice.

“I will always fight for a woman’s right to make a decision about her own body,” Ms. Harris said, when asked how she would respond if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, a landmark decision protecting the right to abortion.

A devout Christian, Mr. Pence said he was proud to serve with a President “who stands without apology for the sanctity of human life.”

Both were grilled on whether they felt that justice had been done for Breonna Taylor, an African-American woman shot by police in her Louisville, Ky., home. A grand jury indicted only one of three officers involved in the shooting, on charges not directly related to her death.

“I don’t believe so,” Ms. Harris answered. “Her life was taken unjustifiably and tragically and violently.” She said a Biden administration would ban chokeholds and create a national registry for police officers who have been found to have broken the law.

“I trust our justice system,” Mr. Pence countered, before accusing Ms. Harris of undermining the court process and disparaging police officers.

“This presumption that you hear consistently from Joe Biden and Kamala Harris that America is systemically racist” and that police have “an implicit bias against minorities,” he added. “That is a great insult to the men and women who serve in law enforcement.”

Debate Winner: a fly

The star of the debate turned out to be a fly that landed on Mr. Pence’s head during a discussion on police bias and then sat there for several minutes. The Vice-President, for his part, either ignored the fly or was unaware of its presence.

The fly immediately became a sensation on social media, racking up hundreds of thousands of mentions of #flygate on Twitter.

The Biden campaign quickly sent out a fundraising appeal that included a photo of the Democratic nominee sitting at a desk, holding a large fly swatter and asking “Pitch in $5 to help this campaign fly.”

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