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Trump and Biden face off in more civil, but equally contentious, final debate

·7-min read

After the first presidential debate was panned so widely that organisers introduced a mute button, Thursday’s second and final debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden was far more civil, yet showed the same sharp divides on the key issues facing the United States.

Trump, the Republican incumbent, took a more restrained approach than he did during the chaotic first presidential debate in September, when he repeatedly interrupted Biden. He even praised the moderator, whom he’d repeatedly denigrated before the debate.

“So far, I respect very much the way you’re handling this,” Trump said to NBC’s Kristen Welker when she gave him time to respond to Biden at one point.

Still, Thursday’s clash featured plenty of personal attacks between two men who evince little respect for each other, and Trump kept fact-checkers busy by levelling unfounded corruption accusations at Biden and his family. He also brought back campaign tropes about immigrant “rapists” and “murderers”, harkening back to the speech that kicked off his 2016 campaign and suggesting that his pitch to voters remains much the same.

The televised encounter in Nashville, Tennessee represented one of Trump’s last remaining opportunities to reshape a campaign dominated by a pandemic that has killed more than 221,000 people in the United States. Trump has trailed Biden in opinion polls for months, though the contest is tighter in some battleground states likely to decide the national outcome.

Here are the issues that dominated the two candidates’ final debate before the November 3 election.

Covid-19: ‘People are learning to die with it’

Trump’s difficulty articulating a defence of his handling of the coronavirus remains a drag on his campaign. The opening topic of the debate was entirely predictable – Trump has received variations of the same question in interviews and has rarely delivered a clear answer.

Asked to outline his plan for the future, Trump instead asserted his prior handling was without fault and yet again predicted a rosy reversal to the pandemic.

“We’re rounding the turn, we’re rounding the corner,” Trump claimed, even as cases were spiking again across the country. “It’s going away.”

Biden, who has sought to prosecute Trump’s handling of the virus in his closing pitch to voters, came prepared. “Anyone who’s responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America,” he said.

Biden added: “He says we’re, you know, we’re learning to live with it. People are learning to die with it.”

Trump asserted that a vaccine would be ready by the end of the year and potentially within “weeks”, but stopped short of claiming it would be ready before the election, as he earlier had. Most experts, including administration officials, have said a vaccine is unlikely to be widely available until mid-2021.

The debate came as several US states, including the election swing state of Ohio, reported record single-day increases in Covid-19 infections on Thursday, evidence the pandemic is accelerating anew.

Trump promises to ‘terminate’ Obamacare

Trump and Biden each sought to position himself as the defender of Americans’ health care, keenly aware that it ranked among the top concerns for voters even before the coronavirus pandemic struck the nation.

But Trump’s efforts to repeal and undermine the Obama-era Affordable Care Act proved to be a liability, as Biden hammered his efforts to strip coverage from tens of millions of Americans and his lack of a plan to cover those with pre-existing conditions.

Biden also fended off Trump’s attack that his plan to reinforce the Obama-era law with a “public option” amounted to a step toward socialised medicine by relying on his well-established public persona – and his vanquishing of Democratic primary rivals who advocated a Medicare for All program, which would extend federal health insurance to all Americans.

“He thinks he’s running against somebody else,” Biden said. “I beat all those other people.”

‘The least racist person in this room’

With centuries of institutional racism coming to a head in 2020 with the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement, some voters have perceived a bit of a disconnect in a 74-year-old white Republican and a 77-year-old white Democrat battling for the presidency. Trump and Biden did little to dispel that perception.

Welker offered both multiple opportunities to speak directly to Black Americans, but while both men said they understood the challenges Black citizens face, the candidates mostly blasted each other.

Trump blamed Biden as an almost singular force behind mass incarceration, especially of “young Black men”. Trump declared himself “the least racist person in this room” and repeated his claim that “nobody has done what I’ve done” for Black Americans “with the exception of Abraham Lincoln, possible exception”.

Biden, incredulous, called Trump a “racist” who “pours fuel on every single racist fire”.

Polls suggest many young voters of colour do not support Trump but aren’t particularly enthusiastic about Biden either. It’s unlikely their final debate altered that view.

Climate change

Trump and Biden faced off on global climate change in the first extensive discussion of the issue in a presidential debate in 20 years.

Biden beseeched the world to address a warming climate, and Trump took credit for pulling the US out of a major international accord to do just that. Trump asserted he was trying to save American jobs, while taking credit for some of the cleanest air and water the nation has seen in generations – some of it the holdover effect of regulations passed by his predecessor.

Trump also sought to blame other countries for their role in climate change, referring to “filthy” pollution in China, India and Russia. (China overtook the US as the world’s largest overall CO2 emitter in 2005, but US emissions per capita are still vastly higher.)

Biden called for massive investment to create new environmentally friendly industries, tapping into an issue of particular importance to his base. “Our health and our jobs are at stake,” he said.

The former vice president also spoke of a transition from the oil industry, which Trump seized upon, asking voters in Texas and Pennsylvania if they were listening.

>> In Pennsylvania, fracking might not be the winning issue US presidential candidates think it is

Foreign policy meets personal attacks

Biden also got a chance to talk a little foreign policy. But most of the candidates' discussion of other countries came as they attacked each other with allegations of foreign entanglements.

Trump repeatedly levelled unsupported allegations against Biden and his son Hunter in an attempt to cast his rival and his family as corrupt.

“I don’t make money from China, you do. I don’t make money from Ukraine, you do,” Trump said.

Trump offered no hard proof for his assertions, as has often been the case during his presidency. Biden meanwhile highlighted a recent New York Times report that the president has a Chinese bank account as well as the Times’ earlier reporting showing that Trump paid only $750 in taxes in 2016 and 2017.

When given the opportunity, Biden also hammered Trump’s relationship with North Korea’s authoritarian leader Kim Jong-un. “His buddy, who’s a thug,” Biden said, arguing that a Trump summit meeting with Kim had “legitimised” a US adversary and potential nuclear threat.

Trump defended his “different kind of relationship ... a very good relationship” with Kim, prompting Biden to retort that nations “had a good relationship with Hitler before he, in fact, invaded the rest of Europe”.

Snap polls show Biden as debate winner

Despite the swipes, Welker appeared relieved at the end of the debate and thanked both candidates for a “robust, fantastic” discussion. Many on social media touted the moderator as the debate’s winner, cheering her ability to keep the discussion on track.

As for viewers, two snap polls showed them picking Biden as the winner. 53 percent of viewers told CNN they preferred the former vice president’s performance, while 39 percent preferred Trump’s. A Data for Progress poll showed similar results at 52-41 for Biden.

Revisit more debate highlights in FRANCE 24’s live blog below.