A camera operator is surrounded by Plexiglas panels to protect against COVID-19 as preparations take place for the vice presidential debate at the University of Utah, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, in Salt Lake City. Anyone looking for Trump-style fireworks from tonight’s vice-presidential debate is likely to be disappointed. But it will still likely be one of the most watched presidential undercard debates in recent history. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Julio Cortez

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

Sen. Kamala Harris wasted no time from the start of the 90-minute debate in Utah

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.

Harris wasted no time from the start of the 90-minute debate in Utah, taking full 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.

A laundry list of grim statistics followed: 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 restricting 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.

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.

Pence accused the Democrats of lifting the Republican plan.

“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.

But he landed his share of blows, at times by exceeding his allotted share of time.

He cited the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement as one of the administration’s singular victories, noting Harris was one of only 10 senators who opposed the trade deal in the Senate.

“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.”

He accused Harris of supporting the Green New Deal, the controversial climate change plan of progressive standard-bearers Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, and insisted over the protests of his opponent that Joe Biden is bent on banning fracking ⏤ a major issue in blue-collar battlegrounds like Pennsylvania.

Both candidates did their share of dodging questions, too.

Harris refused to be pinned down on whether a Biden administration would “pack” the Supreme Court by adding seats for liberal judges, while Pence nimbly danced past several questions, including one about why the White House hasn’t been following its own recommendations for avoiding the virus.

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 a slide in support for Trump since last week’s insult-laden confrontation with Biden, the stakes were higher for the vice-president.

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.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Donald TrumpJoe BidenU.S. election

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Emily Harris (centre) started the in-person Monarch Moms meet-up groups in July, when it was much easier to physical distance in outdoor spaces. Harris started the group as a source of connection for women navigating the ups and downs of having a baby during a pandemic. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)
Victoria new mom group navigates challenges of motherhood in a pandemic

Monarch Moms meet once a week for physically-distanced connection

The Takaya inspired sculpture currently in Kent Laforme’s outdoor studio. The 25,000-pound piece of Vancouver Island marble could be installed on Cattle Point. (Kevin Murdoch Photo)
Stone Takaya sculpture could soon ‘howl’ at Cattle Point

Oak Bay inviting public suggestions for 25,000-pound marble sculpture

Joanne Smith has been visiting Goldstream Provincial Park since she moved to Langford two years ago. (Aaron Guillen/News Staff)
PHOTOS: Visitors flock to Goldstream Provincial Park for 2020 salmon run

‘I wanted to come here before I move back to Australia,’ says visitor

Police closed McNeill Avenue after a workplace death Oct. 20, 2020. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)
Tree-pruning community gathers in Oak Bay after tragic death

Crews met in solidarity at site of Tuesday incident

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry presents modelling of COVID-19 spread in B.C., March 25, 2020. (B.C. government photo)
B.C. sets another COVID-19 record with 203 new cases

up to 1,766 active cases in B.C., two more deaths

Advance polls are open from Oct. 15 to 21 with election day on Oct. 24. (Black Press Media file photo)
École de L’Anse-au-sable. (Google Maps)
B.C. records first COVID-19 outbreak at school, six weeks after students return to class

Three cases of the virus have been identified at École de L’Anse-au-sable

Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau is seen as she leaves media event during a campaign stop in West Vancouver, B.C., Tuesday, October 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. Green leader hopes voters see value in minority government

The Greens received nearly 17 per cent of the popular vote in 2017 yet received just three seats

Local candidates Pam Alexis, Abbotsford-Mission, and Preet Rai, Abbotsford-West, look on as NDP Leader John Horgan main streets in Abbotsford, B.C., Wednesday, October 21, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. NDP takes snap election risk during pandemic in quest for majority government

Green Leader Sonia Furstenau said the election was unnecessary and irresponsible during the pandemic

Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson speaks during a drive-in car rally campaign stop at a tour bus operator, in Delta, B.C., on October 17, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. Liberal Leader maintains confidence as campaign tests party identity

Liberal campaign has been disrupted by controversy

RCMP. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
British Columbia man dies during ski trip near glacier west of Calgary

Kananaskis Public Safety and Alpine Helicopters responded around 2:30 p.m.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020, following a week-long break for the House of Commons. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
One crisis after another for Trudeau since last federal election one year ago

It has been a year of unprecedented calamity and crisis

Members of the Sipekne’katik First Nation load lobster traps on the wharf in Saulnierville, N.S., after launching its own self-regulated fishery on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Vancouver Island First Nations back Nova Scotia’s Indigenous lobster fishermen

Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council calls for action before lives are lost

Most Read