NASHVILLE (AP) — President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden met for the second and last time on a debate stage Thursday after a previously scheduled town hall debate was scrapped after the Republican incumbent became one of the millions of Americans to contract coronavirus.
For Trump, the matchup at Belmont University in Nashville was perhaps the final opportunity to change the dynamics of a race dominated, much to his chagrin, by his response to the pandemic and its economic fallout. For Biden, it was 90 minutes to solidify an apparent lead less than two weeks before the election.
Here are key takeaways:
COVID-19 STILL A DRAG FOR TRUMP
Trump’s difficulty articulating a defense 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 predicted a rosy reversal to the pandemic that has killed more than 220,000 Americans.
“We’re rounding the turn, we’re rounding the corner,” Trump claimed, even as cases spike 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 ATTACKS OBAMACARE, AGAIN
Trump and Biden each sought to position himself as the defender of American’s health care, keenly aware that it ranked among the top issues 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 preexisting conditions.
Biden, by contrast, fended off Trump’s attack that his plan to reinforce the Obama-era law with a “public option” amounted to a step toward socialized medicine by relying on his well-established public persona — and his vanquishing of Democratic primary rivals with more liberal health care policies.
“He thinks he’s running against somebody else,” Biden said. “I beat all those other people.”
TRUMP TONES IT DOWN
Three weeks after drawing bipartisan criticism for his frequent interruptions and badgering of his Democratic rival, Trump adopted a more subdued tone for much of the debate.
Trump took to asking moderator Kristen Welker for the opportunity to follow up on Biden’s answers — “If I may?” — rather than just jumping in, and he thanked Welker repeatedly to boot.
From the first question, this debate seemed different from round one, when Trump’s incessant interruptions and flouting of time limits derailed the 90-minute contest from the outset.
Sure, there still were digs.
“We can’t lock ourselves up in a basement like Joe does,” Trump said, reprising his spring and summer attacks on Biden staying at his residence rather than campaigning in-person amid the pandemic.
Biden smirked, laughed and shook his head. He mocked Trump for once suggesting that bleach helped kill coronavirus.
The two men had a lengthy back-and-forth about their personal finances and family business entanglements.
But on the whole, voters at home got something they didn’t get on Sept. 29: a debate.
It marked an apparent recognition by Trump that his bombastic attitude was a liability with the seniors and suburban women voters who have flocked from the GOP to Democrats.
TRUMP’S INDIRECT PERSONAL ATTACKS
Aiming to alter the trajectory of the race, Trump returned to a tactic that he believes boosted him to the Oval Office four years ago — staccato personal attacks on his opponent.
Trump repeatedly leveled 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, and he has a record of making claims that don’t withstand scrutiny.
A larger question may be whether voters are moved at all, especially those undecided voters whom both candidates are trying to win over, especially given that more than 47 million Americans have already cast ballots.
WHITE MEN AND RACE
With centuries of institutional racism coming to a head in 2020, it’s been a bit of disconnect to see a 74-year-old white Republican and a 77-year-old white Democrat battle for the presidency. Trump and Biden did little to dispel that disconnect.
Welker offered both multiple opportunities to talk directly to Black Americans. Both men said they understood the challenges Black citizens face, but the segment amounted mostly to their blasting 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 color do not support Trump but aren’t particularly enthusiastic about Biden either. It’s unlikely that this final debate altered that view.
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 sounded the alarm for the world to address a warming climate, as Trump took credit for pulling the U.S. 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 a holdover of regulations passed by his predecessor.
Biden, tapping into an issue of particular importance to his base, called for massive investment to create new environmentally friendly industries. “Our health and our jobs are at stake,” he said.
Biden also spoke of a transition from the oil industry, which Trump seized upon, asking voters in Texas and Pennsylvania if they were listening.
FOREIGN POLICY MAKES A CAMEO
Biden finally got a chance to talk a little foreign policy. But only a little. The former vice president loved the topic in the early months of the Democratic presidential primary, but the general election has been dominated by the pandemic and other national crises.
He used it to hammer Trump’s cozy relationship with North Korea’s authoritarian leader Kim Jong Un. “His buddy, who’s a thug,” Biden said, arguing that Trump’s summit with Kim “legitimized” a U.S. 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.”
It certainly wasn’t a deep dive into a pool of complex issues.
A PRESIDENT’S ROLE
The two candidates offered sharply different visions of how to handle the surging pandemic and fought over how much Trump pays in taxes during their final debate of a tumultuous campaign with Trump trailing.
With two weeks until the election’s conclusion, the night in Nashville began with a battle over the president’s handling of the pandemic, which has killed more than 225,000 Americans and cost millions of jobs. Trump declared that the virus will go away while Biden warned that the nation was heading toward “a dark winter.” Polling suggests it is the campaign’s defining issue for voters, and Biden declared, “Anyone responsible for that many deaths should not remain president of the United States of America.”
Trump defended his management of the nation’s most deadly health crisis in a century, dismissing Biden’s warning that the nation had a dire stretch ahead due to spikes in infections. And he promised that a vaccine would be ready in weeks.
“It will go away,” said Trump, staying with his optimistic assessment of the pandemic. “We’re rounding the turn. We’re rounding the corner. It’s going away.”
“We can’t keep this country closed. This is a massive country with a massive economy,” Trump said. “There’s depression, alcohol, drugs at a level nobody’s ever seen before. The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself.”
But Biden vowed that his administration would defer to the scientists and said that Trump’s divisive approach hindered the nation’s response.
“I don’t look at this in the way he does – blue states and red states,” Biden said. “They’re all the United States. And look at all the states that are having a spike in the coronavirus – they’re the red states.”
Biden said that America had learned from a New York Times report that Trump paid only $750 a year in federal taxes while holding “a secret bank account” in China. The former vice president then noted he’s released all of his tax returns going back 22 years and challenged the president to release his returns, saying, “What are you hiding?”
Trump claimed his accountants told him he “prepaid tens of millions of dollars” in taxes. However, as he has for the past four years, after promising to release his taxes, he declined to say when he might do so.
In a visual reminder of the pandemic that has rewritten the norms of American society and fundamentally changed the campaign, sheets of plexiglass had been installed onstage Wednesday between the two men. But in the hours before the debate, they were removed.
When he feels cornered, Trump has often lashed out, going as negative as possible. In one stunning moment during the 2016 campaign, in an effort to deflect from the release of the Access Hollywood tape in which he is heard boasting about groping women, Trump held a press conference just before a debate with Hillary Clinton during which he appeared with women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault. He then invited them to watch as audience members.
In a similar move, Trump’s campaign held another surprise pre-debate news conference, this time featuring Tony Bobulinski, a man who said he was Hunter Biden’s former business partner and made unproven allegations that the vice president’s son consulted with his father on China-related business dealings.
Biden declared the discussion about family entanglements “malarkey” and accused Trump of not wanting to talk about the substantive issues.
Turning to the camera and the millions watching at home, he said, “It’s not about his family and my family. It’s about your family, and your family is hurting badly.”