Donald Trump and Joe Biden clashed over whether the US is “rounding the corner” on coronavirus in a final presidential debate that was more civil than their first encounter but crystallised the personal and policy differences between the candidates.
The confrontation in Nashville, Tennessee, on Thursday came 12 days before the election and with the president trailing his Democratic challenger in the polls, raising the pressure on Mr Trump to land a knockout blow.
The pandemic was topic number one and Mr Biden accused Mr Trump of lacking a plan to stop the spread of the virus — warning of a “dark winter” ahead — as the US death toll from the disease climbed toward 220,000.
“Anyone who is responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president,” Mr Biden said.
Mr Trump repeated his mantra that the pandemic “will go away” and said a vaccine could be ready this year, although there was “no guarantee”.
“We’re rounding the corner,” said Mr Trump, adding that people were “learning to live” with the virus.
Mr Biden shot back: “He says . . . we’re learning to live with it. People are learning to die with it.”
The event was more civil and substantive than their first debate in Ohio, when Mr Trump kept interrupting Mr Biden, who told him to “shut up”, in part thanks to a rule change that meant a candidate’s microphone was muted when his opponent was giving opening remarks in each segment.
But over the course of the final debate, they sparred aggressively on issues ranging from race and immigration to the future of the US oil industry. They also questioned each other’s character.
Mr Trump repeated a baseless claim that Mr Biden received money from overseas business deals related to his son, Hunter. “He’s a corrupt politician, so don’t give me the stuff about how you’re an innocent baby,” the president said.
Mr Biden said he had “not taken a penny” from foreign sources and suggested Mr Trump was dishonest. “You know who he is, you know his character. You know my character.”
Mr Trump claimed that Mr Biden would ban fracking, the gas-extracting technology that has helped the US become energy independent and is critical in Pennsylvania, one of the swing states in the election.
Mr Biden said he had ruled out banning fracking. But during an exchange on the polluting impact of fossil fuels, the former US vice-president said: “I would transition from the oil industry, yes.”
“That’s a big statement,” the president retorted, suggesting he believed he had landed a blow.
After the debate, Mr Biden clarified his comments, saying he did not plan to close the oil industry. “We’re not going to get rid of fossil fuels,” he said. “We’re going to get rid of subsidies for fossil fuels.”
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In an exchange on foreign policy, Mr Biden accused Mr Trump of cosying up to Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator, whom he called “a thug”. Mr Trump said his rapport with Mr Kim had prevented war.
“Having a good relationship with leaders of other countries is a good thing,” Mr Trump said. Mr Biden responded: “We had a good relationship with Hitler before he invaded the rest of Europe.”
Mr Biden accused Mr Trump of fuelling racism, prompting his rival to say he had done more for African-Americans than any US president since Abraham Lincoln and calling himself “the least racist person in this room”.
The Democrat responded: “Abraham Lincoln over here is the most racist president we’ve ever had . . . This guy has a dog whistle about as big as a foghorn.”
Another heated exchange came over immigration and a recent revelation that more than 500 children who crossed into the US with family members remained stranded because their parents — who have since been deported — cannot be found.
“Those kids are alone,” Mr Biden said. “Nowhere to go. It’s criminal.”
Mr Trump insisted the children were “so well taken care of” and accused the Obama administration of building the cages to house detainees. “Who built the cages, Joe? Talk about who built the cages,” Mr Trump said.
The two men were supposed to have three debates, but the head-to-head set for October 15 was cancelled after Mr Trump refused to take part in the virtual event proposed by the organisers after his Covid-19 diagnosis.
The debate was the last time the two will meet before the election, giving Mr Trump a final chance to change the trajectory of the race. Mr Biden leads the national polls by 8.7 percentage points, according to an FT analysis of data from RealClearPolitics. He also leads every swing state, except for Ohio.
Doug Heye, a former top Republican congressional aide, said both candidates performed better than the first debate, but that Mr Trump lost the night because he failed to change the trajectory of the race.
“To make up the gap, he had to land real blows on Biden. He didn’t do so, nor did he cause any real stumble for Biden,” Mr Heye said. “So, a better result, but no change in the race.”
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