Vice-presidential contenders Kamala Harris and Mike Pence have clashed over the coronavirus pandemic in their only debate ahead of next month’s election.
Democrat Kamala Harris called President Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic “the greatest failure of any presidential administration” in history.
Republican VP Mike Pence said the Democratic Party’s pandemic plan amounted to “plagiarism”.
Democratic nominee Joe Biden leads President Trump with 26 days to go to the vote.
Opinion polls indicate President Trump is trailing by single digits in a handful of battleground states that will decide who wins.
Vice-presidents have tie-breaking power in the Senate and are required to step in if a president is unable to perform their duties. Their day-to-day responsibilities vary with each administration, but they typically serve as top advisers and some take on specific policy portfolios.
October 7 meeting was a civil debate between two smooth communicators compared to last week’s belligerent showdown between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, which degenerated into insults and name-calling.
Mike Pence did not interrupt as much as the president last week, but when he did, Kamala Harris interjected: “Mr. Vice-President, I’m speaking, I’m speaking.”
The viral moment on October 7 was a fly landing on Mike Pence’s head and remaining there for some two minutes.
The 90-minute TV debate at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City was marked by disagreements over the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic.
The 55-year-old California senator accused VP Mike Pence and the president of deliberately misleading Americans about the lethality of coronavirus.
“They knew, and they covered it up,” she said, adding that they had “forfeited their right to re-election”.
Mike Pence accused the Biden-Harris campaign of copying the White House’s pandemic strategy, alluding to a blunder that ended Joe Biden’s 1987 run for the presidency when he plagiarized a speech by then-British Labour leader Neil Kinnock.
Kamala Harris was asked by the moderator whether she would take an approved Covid-19 vaccine distributed ahead of the election.
She said she would not take a jab touted by President Trump without the say-so of medical professionals.
Mike Pence, who heads the White House coronavirus task force, retorted: “The fact that you continue to undermine public confidence in a vaccine if the vaccine emerges during the Trump administration I think is unconscionable.”
The Plexiglas barriers separating the two debaters seated 12ft apart were a vivid reminder of the pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans.
President Trump – who is himself recovering from the virus – returned to the White House on October 5 after three nights in hospital, with his opinion poll numbers drooping.
On October 7, the president declared that catching the disease was a “blessing from God” that exposed to him to experimental treatments he vowed would become free for all Americans.
The virus, meanwhile, has spread through the West Wing of the White House and infected figures inside the president’s re-election campaign.
ABC News reported that an internal government memo, dated October 7, said “34 White House staffers and other contacts” had been infected in recent days.
The White House has not yet commented on this.