Early debate questions center on policies to battle COVID 

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris led off the questioning, addressing what the Biden administration would do to bring COVID-19 under control. 

“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” said Harris, noting more than 200,000 have died of the novel virus and over 7 million overall in the country have contracted it.

“The president said it was a hoax. They minimized the seriousness of it,” she said. “In spite of all of that, today, they still don’t have a plan.”

Harris said Biden and their team have a national strategy with contract tracing, testing for the administration of the vaccine and making sure it’ll be free for all people.

“Frankly, this administration has forfeited the right to re-election,” Harris added of President Donald Trump’s administration.

Vice President Mike Pence, who heads the White House’s coronavirus task force, tackled a question on why the death toll in the U.S. is so high. 

The vice president acknowledged the nation has “gone through a very challenging time this year.”

“But I want the American people to know from the very first day, President Donald Trump has put the health of Americans first,” said Pence, noting Trump’s early efforts to suspend travel from China and that Joe Biden “opposed that decision.”

He said Trump’s swift action enabled the federal government to ramp up testing and deliver billions of supplies to medical staff in need. 

“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 the of the way,” he said. 

Pence, during the second round of questioning, snapped back at Harris’ “undermining.”

“We are going to have a vaccine in record time. In less than a year,” he said. “We are right now producing tens of millions of doses.”

COVID-19 takes stage at Harris-Pence debate

The Plexiglass at the University of Utah debate hall caused a stir: Harris’ team requested they be used after President Donald Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19 shortly after his first presidential debate against Democrat Joe Biden.

Pence’s team, meanwhile, insisted they were not medically necessary, an objection that came as Trump returned to the White House. The Trump campaign is trying to move past the virus despite the president’s own diagnosis.

Other reminders that these are not normal times for a vice presidential debate: 20 chairs for guests were spaced roughly 6 feet apart in the debate hall, a performing arts center on the University of Utah campus. The auditorium’s balcony was filled with university students, donors and other guests, who sat in traditional theater seats, though there were at least two empty seats between guests.

Staff took guests’ temperatures upon entrance into the hall and asked people to sanitize their hands. Wearing a mask was required. Even the network TV cameras had Plexiglass wrapping on the sides and back.​

A disclaimer on the back of the debate tickets said the “holder relieves” the event’s organizer, the Commission on Presidential Debates, as well as the debate’s “site host of any and all liability of any kind of character … including COVID-19.”

Debate guests of Pence, Harris send own messages

Vice President Mike Pence’s guests in the debate hall were meant to convey a “law and order” message that has been a centerpiece of the Trump campaign.

They included Ann Marie Dorn, the widow of retired St. Louis police captain David Dorn, who was shot and killed on June 2 after a violent night of protests. She also spoke at the Republican National Convention.

The vice president was also joined by Flora Westbrooks, whose Minneapolis hair salon was burned down in May during protests over George Floyd’s killing by police. Also there on Pence’s behalf were the parents of Kayla Mueller, a humanitarian aid worker who was taken captive and killed by Islamic State militants.

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris invited Utah state Rep. Angela Romero, a longtime community organizer for progressive causes, and Deborah Gatrell, a high school teacher running for Salt Lake County Council.

This debate expected to be different

Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris will square off at 9 p.m. Wednesday at the University of Utah in their first and only debate.

Political observers expect a match-up with a much different feel than the combative presidential debate a week earlier.

“My guess is that both are going to try to go above and beyond to be professional and show dignity and respect,” said Jenell Leonard, a Republican and owner of the Lansing-based consulting firm Marketing Resource Group.

The debate stage features three desks and chairs, about 12 feet apart and separated with Plexiglass screens for the two candidates and the moderator, USA Today’s Washington bureau chief Susan Page, according to pool reports. 

Outside the performing arts center, Justin Ravago, a 19-year-old undergraduate from Boise, Idaho, said he’s looking for a “proper sort of debate.”

“Last week was not so great,” Ravago said. “I want to hear what they have to say rather than a crossfire of words.”

U.S. Senate Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence

On Sept. 29, President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden frequently clashed and spoke over each other in their first debate in Cleveland. The Republican incumbent repeatedly interrupted the former vice president with Biden asking Trump to “shut up” at one point.

The vice presidential debate comes less than a week after Trump himself revealed he had tested positive for COVID-19 and spent three nights at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

The Associated Press contributed

cferretti@detroitnews.com