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Pence, Harris spar over federal Covid-19 response as Trump's illness looms

The vice presidential candidates sat 12 feet apart and were separated by sheets of plexiglass in a debate that focused on the pandemic, the economy and the Supreme Court.

SALT LAKE CITY — Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris sparred Wednesday night over the federal response to the coronavirus, offering differing views about how the men at the top of their tickets would move the nation forward.

President Donald Trump contracted Covid-19 this month, cementing the administration's response to the pandemic as the focus of the campaign, including the task force that Pence was named to lead.

While Wednesday night's debate was remarkably more civil than the chaotic matchup last week between Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden, the lone vice presidential debate still touched on similar themes.

Harris spent much of the evening portraying the Trump administration as inept and untrustworthy on a wide range of issues, while Pence cast the Democratic ticket as too liberal and nodded to his base with criticism of the media and a focus on fracking.

"The American people have witnessed the greatest failure of any presidential administration in our history," said Harris, D-Calif., responding to a question from moderator Susan Page of USA Today about Trump's response to the pandemic.

Throughout the debate, Pence was left to defend Trump's recent actions — from his comments last week about the Proud Boys to his lax health protocols, which have contributed to a large virus outbreak among White House staffers and campaign aides. He often failed to give a direct response.

"The American people have demonstrated over the last eight months — they've been given the facts. They're willing to put the health of their families and their neighbors and people they don't even know first," Pence responded when asked how Americans could be expected to follow the administration's Covid-19 guidelines when the White House has not been doing so.

Harris also deflected at times, refusing to answer whether a Biden administration would seek to expand the Supreme Court. She instead used the moment to remind Americans that the Trump administration is challenging the Affordable Care Act in court.

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Neither candidate, however, danced around the issue of racial justice, crystallizing one of the deepest differences between the tickets.

Asked whether justice was served in the case of Breonna Taylor, the Black woman who was killed in March during a police raid at her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky, Harris said she did not believe so. She also said George Floyd, the Black man whose death in police custody sparked protests over the summer, was "tortured and killed."

Pence, however, responded, "I trust our justice system," and he said it was a "great insult" to suggest that there was an implicit bias in law enforcement before turning to Trump's key campaign message of law and order.

Harris made history Wednesday night as the first Black woman and the first Asian American to participate in a general election debate as a candidate on a major-party ticket.

While the tone was more civil, the debate still had its moments of interruption. Pence frequently talked over the moderator as she tried to cut him off. Harris, at times, responded to Pence's interruptions by looking at him and saying, "I'm speaking."

Kamala Harris and Mike Pence in the vice presidential debate on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Wednesday.Brian Snyder / Reuters

With the election weeks away, Republicans had hoped Pence would inject energy into a lagging Trump campaign, especially as the president remains off the trail while he recovers from the virus.

But it is unclear whether the debate will do much to move the needle. Many voters have said their minds have already been made up. An average of national polls compiled by NBC News shows Biden ahead by more than 10 percentage points. Biden also consistently leads in almost every critical battleground state.

Still, Pence and Harris will be examined by voters who are choosing between two senior citizens for president.

Trump's coronavirus diagnosis last week sparked questions about the transfer of the powers of the presidency. Biden has said he sees himself as a "bridge" to the next generation of Democrats, raising speculation about whether he would seek a second term.

Regardless of who wins, Trump, 74, and Biden, 77, would each set a record as the oldest president to take the oath on Inauguration Day.

Pence and Harris were asked whether their tickets had discussed procedures when it comes to presidential disability.

Pence used his two- minute response time to talk about a coronavirus vaccine and Biden's response to the swine flu, while Harris spoke about her background and Biden's decision to pick her as his running mate.

While Trump's diagnosis hung over the debate hall, Wednesday's event also featured a visual reminder of the pandemic.

Sheets of plexiglass separated the candidates on the stage, an extra safety measure that Harris requested because of Pence's potential exposure to Trump. There was some concern that Trump could have infected Biden during last week's debate. Biden has consistently tested negative.

The candidates were also separated by more than 12 feet, an increase from the 7 feet that kept Trump and Biden apart.

Masks were required for all attendees except the candidates and the moderator. The Committee on Presidential Debates had indicated that the mask requirement would be enforced after the Trump family ignored the rule during last week's debate.

At the end of the debate, the candidates' spouses joined them on stage. Doug Emhoff wore a mask, while Karen Pence did not.

Both Pence and Harris have tested negative for Covid-19 multiple days in a row, according to their campaigns.