Vice presidential debate in Utah shows contrast but leaves important questions unanswered

(Patrick Semansky | AP) Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Vice President Mike Pence wave before the vice presidential debate Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, at Kingsbury Hall on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

The sole vice presidential debate of the election cycle, held at the University of Utah’s Kingsbury Hall on Wednesday, left a number of questions unanswered, as both candidates dodged specifics on issues critical to the American public just weeks ahead of the election.

As President Donald Trump battles the coronavirus, Vice President Mike Pence declined to answer a question about whether he’d had a conversation with the commander in chief about safeguards in the event of presidential disability, instead returning to a question about vaccines.

California Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic nominee, refused to say whether she’d support expanding, or “packing,” the Supreme Court if the Senate votes to confirm conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett before the election.

And both candidates were light on specifics about what they would do if Trump refuses to concede the office if he loses — though Pence used the opportunity to take another shot at by-mail voting.

“President Trump and I are fighting every day in courthouses to prevent Joe Biden and Kamala Harris from changing the rules and creating this universal mail in voting that will create a massive opportunity for voter fraud,” he said from the debate stage, without citing evidence. “And we have a fair and free election we know we’re going to have confidence in and I believe in all my heart that President Donald Trump is going to be reelected for four more years.”

[Analysis: The V.P. debate captured the nation’s attention and could be more impactful than most]

In Utah, which has for years used by-mail voting, officials have long praised the method and said they have seen it cause no extra fraud.

The debate looked very different than in years past, featuring a much smaller live audience than originally planned in an effort to allow for social distancing and plexiglass shields separating the two candidates, who were seated 12 feet apart. (Experts said the barriers wouldn’t do much to address the risk of airborne droplets carrying the virus, though, a challenge better addressed by improving ventilation and airflow.)

The night also stood in sharp contrast to the first presidential debate, a chaotic and loud scramble in which Trump repeatedly insulted and interrupted Biden — though moderator Susan Page did chide Pence at one point on Wednesday for not keeping to the time constraints.

For many of the millions of viewers around the country, the highlight of the night was the presence of a fly that set up residency on Pence’s head for a few minutes, its black body contrasted sharply against his white hair.

Despite the candidates' constant dodging and weaving, the debate did offer voters a chance to see the daylight between the two on a number of issues, ranging from foreign policy to abortion and global warming.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic took center stage, as Harris put Pence on defense by criticizing the administration’s response to the virus that’s taken the lives of more than 200,000 Americans.

“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” Harris said right out of the gate of the debate, ticking off statistics on infection rates and job losses and arguing that Trump had done little to warn the American people about the seriousness of the virus.

[Read more: Debate attracts liberal, conservative protest groups to the University of Utah]

“Can you imagine if you knew on Jan. 28, as opposed to March 13 what they knew what you might have done to prepare?” Harris asked later. “They knew and they covered it up. The president said it was a hoax. They minimized the seriousness of it.”

Pence said the Trump administration had always “put the health of America first” and credited the president’s decision to suspend all travel from China as having saved “hundreds of thousands of American lives,” buying time needed to set up testing efforts.

He also pushed back on criticism about an event he attended announcing Barrett’s nomination at the Rose Garden. More than 200 people were at that event, which has been deemed a coronavirus “superspreader,” with more than a dozen people in attendance later testing positive for COVID-19.

Many people at the event were tested beforehand, Pence said Wednesday, and it was held outside, as public health officials have recommended.

“The difference here,” he continued, “is President Trump and I trust the American people to make choices in the best interests of their health. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris consistently talk about mandates and not just mandates with the coronavirus but a government takeover of health care, the Green New Deal, all government control. We’re about freedom and respecting the freedom of the American people.”

As many Americans have indicated skepticism of a coronavirus vaccine that’s being pushed out on an accelerated schedule, Harris said Wednesday that she would be inoculated — though only on the advice of scientists.

“If the public health professionals, if Dr. Fauci, if the doctors tell us that we should take it, I’ll be the first in line to take it, absolutely,” she said. “But if Donald Trump tells us that we should take it, I’m not taking it.”

Pence declined to use the time given to him to answer the next question, about taking over the presidency in case of presidential disability, and instead criticized Harris' stance on vaccination.

[Read the essay by Utah student Brecklynn Brown that was featured in Wednesday’s debate]

“Stop playing politics with people’s lives,” he said. “The reality is that we will have a vaccine, we believe before the end of this year, and it will have the capacity to save countless American lives. And your continuous undermining of confidence in a vaccine is just unacceptable.”

The 90-minute debate came at a pivotal moment for the vice presidential candidates, in what was seen as an opportunity for both to prove their presidential prowess, if it becomes necessary for one of them to assume office.

That’s a particularly important question since Trump, 74, became the oldest incoming president when he won the White House. Biden, who is 77, would top that if elected — a reality that requires the vice presidential candidates to assure the public they would be ready to assume office, if necessary, in the next term.

Harris didn’t indicate whether she’d had a conversation with Biden about what would happen if he became unfit for office. But she used the opportunity to speak to her credentials, including her time as the California attorney general and her tenure on the Senate Intelligence Committee to make her case to voters.

“I think Joe has asked me to serve with him because we know that we share a purpose, which is about lifting up the American people and, after the four years we have seen of Donald Trump, unifying our country around our common values and principles,” she said.

Wednesday’s event marked the first time a national debate was held in the Beehive State, an expense that officials have estimated would range anywhere from $5 million to $6 million to host.

Salt Lake City’s Downtown Alliance said the debate brought 2,500 people to Salt Lake City this week and that those visitors have booked 7,500 room nights in the capital city’s hotels, providing a much needed boost to the economy as the coronavirus pandemic wears on.

The debate also brought out warring factions of demonstrators, who held rallies across the city Wednesday night in support of their preferred candidate or against the other.

State Reps. Sandra Hollins and Angela Romero were among the Utahns invited by the Biden campaign to attend the vice presidential debate. On the Republican side, Pence was accompanied by the parents of murdered Islamic State hostage Kayla Mueller.