SALT LAKE CITY (CN) — Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris tightened their laces for a much anticipated, sole vice-presidential debate that was more civil than last week’s presidential face-off.
The sprawling blocks of Salt Lake City, planned by Mormon settlers for family farmers to turn cattle without “resorting to profanity,” morphed from a pandemic lull to boisterous buzz in the hours leading to the showdown.
The University of Utah, founded in 1850 and a 2002 Olympic site, was in tight lockdown ahead of the contest.
Dueling protests camped at the edge of the campus, trading barbs and shouting over one another, a scene much like last week’s presidential debate in Ohio.
Debate attendees, winners of a ticket lottery, and media surrounding the hall on President’s Circle donned salmon-colored surgical masks issued by the host university.
Moderator Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today, called seats “the most exclusive tickets” as she greeted the “small and socially-distanced” audience.
Harris’ guests included state Rep. Angela Romero and Deborah Gatrell, a 21-year veteran and high school teacher.
Pence invited Ann Marie Dorn, the widow of retired St. Louis police captain David Dorn, who was shot to death during protests in June, and the parents of Kayla Mueller, a humanitarian aid worker who was taken captive and killed by Islamic State militants.
Pence and Harris sat 12-feet and 3-inches apart at desks flanked by a duo of plexiglass screens.
“These are tumultuous times,” Page said, urging debate civility unlike the melee of President Donald Trump and Joe Biden on Sept. 29.
Harris, first to speak during the nine-segment event, calmly looked into television cameras while addressing a need to “save our county” amid ongoing pandemic uncertainties.
Pence, in turn on Covid-19, the administration’s response and death toll, said President Trump “put the safety of America first.”
“Literally tens of millions of doses of a vaccine” will be available “by the end of this year,” Pence added.
Neither candidate immediately spoke out of turn or over one another.
Until they did.
“Mr. Vice President I’m speaking,” Harris said, hand in the air, as Pence chimed in during her second stint on the mic. “I’m speaking.”
Page sternly put a stop to the ruckus, which ebbed and flowed through the evening.
Pence interrupted 10 times to Harris’ five.
Page was largely hushed as moderator over the first half of the debate, which featured topics of race and the justice system, the economy, health care, jobs, taxes and foreign policy.
On a Biden-Harris plan to combat the pandemic, Pence scoffed and called it “plagiarism.”
“When you look at the Biden plan,” he said, "it reads an awful lot like what President Trump and I and our task force have been doing every step of the way.”
Harris later lobbed a return haymaker over Trump’s murky tax records.
“It would be really great to know who the president of the United States and the commander-in-chief owes money to,” she said. “Is he making those decisions in the best interest of the American people or self-interest?”
The pair continued to spar on climate change.
"The climate is changing. But the issue is, what's the cause? And what do we do about it?,” Pence said. “President Trump has made it clear that we're going to continue to listen to the science."
“We don't need a massive $2 trillion Green New Deal that would impose all new mandates on American businesses and American families,” he added.
"We have seen a pattern with this administration, which is they don't believe in science,” Harris replied.
The candidates appeared practiced, and polished, throughout the event, delivering points with ease and avoiding the trappings that marred round one of Trump-Biden.
The most heartfelt moment may well have been as Harris, her steely eyes welled with tears, detailed the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by police in Minnesota.
“People around our country of every race, of every age, of every gender, perfect strangers to each other marches shoulder-to-shoulder, arm-in-arm fighting for us to finally achieve that ideal of equal justice under law,” Harris said. “We always must fight for the values that we hold dear, including the fight to achieve our ideals.”
Pence responded coldly, “there’s no excuse for the rioting and looting that followed,” citing a Minneapolis hair salon that was “burned to the ground” after Floyd’s death.
“We don't have to choose between supporting law enforcement and supporting our African-American community,” Pence added.
Online commentators made note of a fly that rested on Pence’s head for about two minutes, unnoticed by the vice president.
Immediately following the debate, the Biden campaign took advantage of the moment and offered a flyswatter for sale on its website with “Truth over flies” printed on the handle.
Karen Pence joined her husband onstage immediately following the debate. She did not wear a mask.
Harris’ husband, Doug Emhoff, sported a salmon-colored mask.
In an official release following the debate, Biden said Harris, “nailed it.”
“She made a fierce, compelling case in front of the American people and reminded us that, with good governance and respectable leadership, our country's best days still lie ahead,” Biden added.
President Trump repeatedly took to Twitter, his preferred platform, during the debate.
“Mike Pence WON BIG!,” Trump, who is recovering from a coronavirus infection, tweeted from the White House.
The second presidential debate, and third of four Commission of Presidential Debates events, is slated for Oct. 15 in Miami.
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