NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CN) — Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Joe Biden sparred Thursday night in Nashville, making their pitches to American voters 11 days before many will head to the polls.
While the first debate featured a chaotic fight, Thursday’s event, moderated by NBC White House correspondent Kristen Welker, was a largely orderly back-and-forth through some of the candidates’ positions.
Among their statements, Trump claimed a vaccine for Covid-19 would be announced in a few weeks and Biden said he plans to stop subsidies from flowing to the oil industry to eventually shutter it.
Before the debate, the Trump campaign said the president would focus on rebuilding the economy and go after Biden for what he said are Biden’s connections with China.
TJ Ducklo, spokesman for the Biden campaign, told Courthouse News before the event that Biden intended to speak directly to the American people about issues such as getting the virus under control and protecting preexisting conditions.
The accusations Trump intends to levy against the former vice president, Ducklo said, are tired accusations that the president has launched before.
The candidates faced-off at Belmont University’s Curb Event Center, a building that can hold 5,500 people, but because of Covid-19 protocols, only 200 people were in the hall.
Many attendees of the event wore blue bands on their wrists, showing they tested negative for Covid-19 before entering the debate area. In the morning, a small plane circled the city towing a banner: “Unborn Black Lives Matter,” it read and showed a picture that appeared to be an aborted fetus.
The civility of Thursday’s debate came because of a tweak in debate rules that gave each candidate two minutes to answer a question while their opponent’s mic sat muted.
The result was the kind of debate John Koch was looking for. The director of Debate at neighboring Vanderbilt University said the change gave voters the ability to make more informed decisions about the candidates.
“Tonight, we did increase knowledge about the candidates and the issues,” Koch told Courthouse News after the debate. “I think the mute function worked the way it was supposed to — to give them some uninterrupted time to explain their positions and their records.”
It gave Biden the opportunity to explain his plans for tackling Covid-19 and health care, according to Koch. At the same time, it allowed Trump to highlight some of Biden’s record.
And that was due in part to Welker, Koch said, who probably sacrificed some of the questions she wanted to ask in order to let the candidates engage, yet pushed them along when the exchanges yielded little information.
“One of the complaints I often make about moderators is that they shut down when engagement is happening. I thought she did a really good job letting natural engagement play out, give them time to offer rebuttal back and forth,” Koch said.
In the same week that the debate came together, a perimeter fence ringed the debate hall and dogs sniffed the bags and packages entering the area, three Nashville-area hospitals issued a joint statement urging local residents to take more precautions against the coronavirus.
Over the last two weeks, cases of Covid-19 in the Nashville area increased 50%. Hospitalizations for Covid-19 rose 40%, affecting the ability for local hospitals to handle other health needs.
In this 11th hour of the race, Biden leads against the incumbent president in national polls. Real Clear Politics average polling shows Biden leading the race by 7.9%, based on polls conducted in the last few days.
And voters, according to the results of a poll Pew Research Center released Tuesday, tend to say they trust Biden in uniting a divided country, tackling the Covid-19 pandemic and filling future vacancies on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Anheuser-Busch Foundation, which has helped sponsor the presidential debates for 24 years, had an eight-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer and a black mask — both branded with its eagle and ‘A’ logo — placed at each workstation in the media filing center.
In her first question, Welker asked about the “dangerous new phase” in the pandemic as it heads to the winter months. How, Welker asked, will the candidates lead the country in the new phase?
“We’re fighting it and we’re fighting it hard,” Trump said, noting it’s a world-wide pandemic, yet the spikes in cases in Florida, Texas and Arizona are no more.
Trump said a vaccine to Covid-19 will be announced soon.
“It’s going to be announced within weeks,” Trump said of a vaccine for Covid-19.
He is immune from the virus, Trump said, adding that he learned a lot from contracting the virus.
“We’re rounding the turn; we’re rounding the corner. It’s going away,” he said.
Biden, responding to the question and looking directly at the camera, said anyone responsible for the amount of death due to Covid — about 1,000 deaths a day — should not remain in office.
Biden held up the black mask he wore walking onto the blue debate stage. The policies he would advocate for is wearing the mask all the time and rapid testing.
When Welker asked Trump what companies are close to developing a vaccine, Trump named Johnson and Johnson and Pfizer. Trump said that he’s relying on the military for distribution of the vaccine.
Biden said the nation is heading to a “dark winter” under Trump’s leadership.
“We can’t lock ourselves up in a basement like Joe does,” Trump rejoined, which caused a chuckle from Biden.
Pivoting to national security, Welker asked about the news that broke this week about countries like Iran obtaining voter registration information and sent threatening messages to Florida voters.
“They will pay a price if I am elected,” Biden said. The president, Biden said, has not spoken about this issue. In an apparent effort to head off the accusations regarding Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, that was provided by former New York City Mayor and Trump associate Rudy Giuliani was used as a Russian pawn.
Trump accused Biden of obtaining millions of dollars from Russia.
“Nobody is tougher than me on Russia,” Trump said.
But Biden insisted he has “not taken a single penny” from a foreign country. In addition, he released 22 years of tax returns while Trump has not released a single year, Biden said.
“What are you hiding?” Biden asked Trump.
Trump responded he would release them as soon as he can. The president claimed he was treated worse by the IRS than the Tea Party, alluding to a scandal where the IRS scrutinized groups associated with the conservative Tea Party movement.
Eventually, Biden said the election was not about Trump’s family nor Biden’s family but the family of the viewer at home.
Trump said that line was typical politician talk.
Trump said he did not think that North Korea’s development of a new intercontinental ballistic missile was a stab in the back from the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, because war has not broken out and relationships with foreign leaders is a good thing.
“We had a good relationship with Hitler before he, in fact, invaded Europe, the rest of Europe. Come on,” Biden retorted.
Race in America
Pivoting to a discussion on race in America, Welker brought up ‘the talk,’ that Black families have with their children, that they may be detained by police because of heightened scrutiny because of the color of their skin.
Speaking first, Biden described how Black parents need to tell their children not to reach for the glove box during a traffic stop and not to flip the hood of a hoodie while walking. Biden said he believes there is institutional racism in the nation, yet there is a right to be free from violence.
Welker asked the same of Trump, she reminded him that she wanted him to address his comments to those parents.
Trump turned his attention to the former senator’s legacy. Trump said Biden wrought so much harm in the Black community with the passage of his crime bill in the 90s, which rode along on terms such as ‘super predators’ and led to mass incarceration of Black males.
Trump mentioned Republican Senator Tim Scott’s idea for opportunity zones that has helped Black communities, while also mentioning Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
But Biden said Trump has pushed for the death penalty for the Central Park Five and said that the government should incarcerate more people.
The Obama administration commuted thousands of sentences, Biden said, while the Trump has only commuted a handful.
“You were there just a short time ago and you did nothing,” Trump responded.
Trump said Biden did nothing four years ago and if the Obama administration did a good job, Trump would have never thrown his hat in the ring for the office.
“I ran because of you,” Trump said to Biden.
When Welker asked Trump to explain his opinion about the group Black Lives Matter, how he said it was a symbol of hatred, Trump said his first experience with the group is when they were marching and chanting about pigs — referencing police officers — how they should be fried.
“I’m the least racist person in this room,” Trump said.
“This guy is a dog whistle as big as a fog horn” Biden said, rebutting the president and referring to Trump telling the white nationalist Proud Boys group to “Stand back and stand by” in their previous debate.
Biden said that the crime bill he helped pass was a mistake. He is trying to change it, he said, especially the provisions regarding cocaine. Biden proposed that he’d offer money to states to change their laws to eliminate mandatory minimums.
When it came to the topic of climate change, Trump said the nation has had the best carbon emission numbers in three decades.
Responding to a question about Black families living in areas of the country affected by pollution, Trump said that despite rolling back environmental regulations, those families are employed at great rates. He claimed he saved the oil industry by getting countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia to cut back, pointing to low gas prices.
Biden, meanwhile, said the nation was nearing the “point of no return” in a few years in regards to climate change. He proposed investing in charging stations to boost the electric car market and to retrofit homes to make them energy efficient.
Biden said he wants to transition from the oil industry to renewable industry and cut back on the oil subsidies over time.
“We have to move towards a net zero emissions,” Biden said.
Wrapping up the debate, Welker asked each candidate to imagine that it was January 2021 — Inauguration Day. What would they say to the Americans that did not vote for them?
Trump said he wanted to restore the economy the way it was before the pandemic.
“Success is going to bring us together” Trump said. A Biden administration, he said, would lead to higher taxes and American’s retirement plans “going to hell.”
Biden spoke directly to the camera.
“What is on the ballot here is the character of this country,” Biden said.