President Donald Trump and Joe Biden have fiercely clashed in the first of the three White House debates.
The Republican president frequently interrupted, prompting the Democratic candidate to tell him to “shut up” as the two fought over the pandemic, healthcare and the economy.
Donald Trump was challenged over white supremacist support and refused to condemn a specific far-right group.
Opinion polls suggest Joe Biden has a steady single-digit lead over President Trump.
However, with 35 days until Election Day, surveys from several important states show a closer contest.
Polls also suggest one in ten Americans have yet to make up their mind how to vote. But analysts said the September 29 debate – the first of three – probably would not make much difference.
Overall, the 90-minute debate in Cleveland, Ohio, was light on serious policy discussion. Both candidates talked over each other but President Trump cut in some 73 times, according to a count by CBS News.
The tenor became clear early on as the two candidates sparred over healthcare. Hectoring from Donald Trump saw Joe Biden call the president a “clown”.
As they moved on to the Supreme Court, the rancor continued, with Joe Biden refusing to answer when asked if he would try to expand the number of judges.
“Will you shut up, man?” Joe Biden snapped at President Trump, later adding: “Keep yapping, man.”
President Trump responded: “The people understand, Joe. Forty-seven years [in politics], you’ve done nothing. They understand.”
In one of the most talked about exchanges of the night, Donald Trump was asked by the moderator, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, if he was prepared to condemn white supremacists.
President Trump initially said he would but when asked to denounce the far-right Proud Boys group by name, he sidestepped.
He said: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by, but I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left.”
The Proud Boys, an anti-immigrant, all-male group, took to social media to celebrate.
“Standing down and standing by sir,” it posted on Telegram.
Antifa, short for “anti-fascist”, is a loose affiliation of far-left activists that often clash with the far right at street protests.
Joe Biden said Donald Trump had “panicked” over the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 200,000 Americans.
“A lot of people died and a lot more are going to die unless he gets a lot smarter, a lot quicker,” he said.
President Trump objected to Joe Biden using the word “smart”.
“You graduated either the lowest or almost the lowest in your class,” he said.
“Don’t ever use the word smart with me. Don’t ever use that word.”
Local rules required everyone in the room to wear masks but of the president’s family members present, only First Lady Melania Trump donned a face covering during the debate.
Due to the pandemic, the forum at Case Western Reserve University had a small, socially distanced audience and the traditional opening handshake was skipped.