Kamala Harris and Mike Pence Go Head-to-Head in Debate, with Plexiglass Between Them: The Highlights

The event follows President Donald Trump's hospitalization with the novel coronavirus

vice presidential debate
From left: Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence meet at their only debate, on Wednesday in Salt Lake City, moderated by Susan Page (middle). Photo: getty images

Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris met face-to-face — albeit, while separated by plexiglass and seated some 12 feet apart — in 2020's first and only vice presidential debate, moderated by USA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page.

The novel coronavirus was front-and-center throughout the event, with constant reminders to both the president's recent diagnosis and hospitalization — and the specter of the vice president's exposure, though he later tested negative.

Indeed, the first question Page asked was about the government's pandemic response, which Harris called a galling failure on behalf of President Donald Trump's administration, in particular because Trump knowingly downplayed the virus' risk to the public.

Pence, asked about the U.S.' increased death rate compared to other developed countries, insisted that "from the very first day, President Donald Trump has put the health of America first" and he touted early decisions to restrict travel.

The Democratic vice presidential nominee, 55, and Pence, 61, did not shake hands or physically touch during the event and both candidates were seated roughly 12 feet apart and with panes of plexiglass between them as part of additional measures put into place by the Commission on Presidential Debates following Trump's hospitalization from the coronavirus disease COVID-19.

Pence's team initially mocked the use of plexiglass, with a spokeswoman telling Politico, "If Sen. Harris wants to use a fortress around herself, have at it." Ultimately, however, both candidates acquiesced to its use.

A small audience was present at the University of Utah debate hall, though all attendees were required to wear masks. Everyone at the debate, including Harris and Pence, was tested for the virus prior to being admitted to the hall, according to organizers.

The debate followed last week's chaotic and widely criticized face-off for Joe Biden and Trump, moderated by Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace.

This week's event was divided into nine segments of approximately 10 minutes each. Unlike the presidential debate, however, topics were not disclosed ahead of time.

Read on for highlights.

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Vice President Mike Pence. getty images

A Far Cry from the Biden-Trump Debate

Pence’s polished Midwestern demeanor provided a stark contrast to Trump, who is estimated to have interrupted Biden or Wallace more than 100 times during the debate last week.

Though he did often go over his allotted two minutes of answer time (and was called out by Harris for more than a few interruptions), Pence remained largely civil, even extending a pleasantry to his competitor before answering his first question: “Sen. Harris, it’s a privilege to be on the stage with you.”

The most stark contrasts between the two candidates were highlighted right off the bat, as Page asked Harris how a Biden administration would respond to the pandemic upon taking office.

Calling the Trump administration's response to the pandemic "the greatest failure of any presidential administration" in history, Harris first rattled off a slew of statistics: "200,000 dead people in our country. Over seven million people who have contracted this disease. One in five businesses closed ... Front-line workers treated like sacrificial workers.”

A Biden administration, said Harris, would focus on "contract tracing, testing" and ensuring a vaccine would be “free for all.”

Pence responded to Harris' answer with an attempted zinger, telling Harris that the Democrats’ pandemic plan is similar to what Trump has already done.

“It looks a little like plagiarism, which is something Joe Biden knows a little something about,” Pence said, apparently referencing a 1987 incident from the vice president's then-campaign for president. (The Trump camp, for its part, has also been accused of plagiarism; First Lady Melania Trump delivered a 2016 convention speech that lifted directly from former First Lady Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech.)

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California Sen. Kamala Harris at Wednesday's debate with Vice President Mike Pence. getty images

An Appeal to the Undecideds

While the candidates spoke mostly to one another, they did, at times, implore voters directly.

In an exchange regarding the Affordable Care Act, Harris spoke to the camera when noting that Trump wants to dismantle the ACA.

“If you have a pre-existing condition … they’re coming for you,” Harris said. “If you love someone who has a pre-existing condition, they’re coming for you.”

Harris took a similar tactic when discussing Trump and Pence's early COVID-19 strategy, saying directly to the camera: "They knew what was happening and they didn't tell you ... they knew and they covered it up."

The (Other) President

Though Trump was an ever-present theme of the night, some of the most potent exchanges from either side came in reference not to the current president — but to the 44th.

Pence, speaking about the pandemic, defended the current administration's handling of the virus, placing the blame for the crisis squarely at the feet of China.

"There's a weird obsession that President Trump has had with getting rid of whatever accomplishment was achieved by President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden," Harris shot back, noting that Trump and Pence dismantled a National Security Council directorate charged with preparing for pandemics.

Obama came up later in the evening, too, when Pence surfaced one of Trump's favorite talking points: that the former administration "spied" on the Trump campaign before it came into office.

Pence added that Harris and her fellow Democrats had tried to impeach the President "for a phone call."

The truth is a bit more complicated. In 2019, the House of Representatives impeached Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress stemming from his Ukraine scandal, in which the president was accused of withholding some $400 million in military aid from the country while he pushed its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to dig into Biden's family.

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Susan Page moderating Wednesday night's debate between Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence. getty images

Distractions and Evasions

Both candidates largely stuck to talking points, often evading direct questions from Page. Harris, for instance, refused to answer Pence when he asked if she and Biden would "pack" the Supreme Court by adding more judges if Amy Coney Barrett were to be confirmed before they took office.

Pence also evaded questions, including one asked by Page regarding whether he believed that climate change has increased the intensity of hurricanes and wildfires.

Though he acknowledged the climate is “changing,” Pence didn’t answer the question directly, instead claiming forest management was the key to getting forest fires under control and that “there are no more hurricanes today than there were 100 years ago.”

Page later returned to the question, asking Pence whether he believes that "climate change poses an existential threat." He again refused to answer, pivoting instead to fracking and job creation.

Pence also refrained from directly answering Page when asked what he would do if Trump (who has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power) refuses to concede the election.

"When you talk about accepting the outcome of the election ... [Democrats] have spent the last four years trying to overturn the results of the last election," Pence answered, after saying he was confident Trump would win reelection.

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A fly lands in Vice President Mike Pence's hair at Wednesday's debate with Sen. Kamala Harris in Salt Lake City. ERIC BARADAT/Getty Images

A Literal Fly on the Wall

Perhaps because the debate was so monotonous — especially in comparison to some modern-day political discourse — one of the highlights came via a literal fly on the wall.

The fly in question, which elicited numerous reactions on social media, landed on Pence's head, where it remained for more than two minutes, according to those keeping track at home.

The Biden campaign seized on the, well, buzz-worthy moment, tweeting a graphic that read "Don't let this debate buzz off," with a link to purchase fly-themed campaign merchandise.

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