US President Donald Trump was evasive when pressed on whether he took a Covid-19 test before his first debate with Democratic rival Joe Biden as the two men squared off again, in a way, after their scuttled second debate was replaced by duelling televised town halls.
Biden, appearing nearly 2000km away on Thursday (Friday NZT), denounced the White House’s handling of the virus that has claimed more than 215,000 American lives.
Trump, meanwhile, was defensive and insisted that the nation was turning the corner on the virus, even as his own battle with the disease took centre stage.
Trump, less than two weeks after being diagnosed with Covid-19, dodged directly answering whether he took a test the day of the September 29 debate, only saying “possibly I did, possibly I didn’t”.
Debate rules required that each candidate, using the honour system, had tested negative before the debate, but Trump spoke in circles when asked when he last tested negative.
It was his positive test two days later that created Thursday’s odd spectacle, which deprived most viewers of a simultaneous look at the candidates just 19 days before US election day.
The presidential rivals took questions in different cities on different networks: Trump on NBC from Miami, Biden on ABC from Philadelphia.
Trump backed out of plans for the presidential faceoff originally scheduled for the evening after debate organisers said it would be held virtually following Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis.
The town halls offered a different format for the two candidates to present themselves to voters, after the pair held a chaotic and combative first debate late last month. The difference in the men’s tone was immediate and striking.
Trump was Trump. He was loud and argumentative, fighting with the host, Savannah Guthrie, refusing to outright condemn the QAnon conspiracy group, testily declaring he would denounce white supremacy but complaining about the questioning — and eventually saying for the first time that he would honour the results of a fair election, but only after casting an extraordinary amount doubt on the likeliness of fairness.
“And then they talk ‘Will you accept a peaceful transfer,'” Trump said. “And the answer is, ‘Yes, I will.’ But I want it to be an honest election, and so does everybody else.”
In a moment certain to tickle the internet, one of the voters in the audience told Trump he was handsome.
“Good evening Mr President. I have to say, you have a great smile,” she said, smiling broadly herself.
“Thank you. Thank you,” Trump replied, flashing a grin.
“He does. You’re so handsome when you smile,” she added.
The voter in question, Paulette Dale, was identified as a Republican leaning towards Joe Biden.
Biden meanwhile, took a far different, softer, approach with audience questions. The former vice president, who struggled growing up with a stutter, stuttered slightly at the start of the show and at one point squeezed his eyes shut and slowed down his response to clearly enunciate his words.
Dressed in a blue suit and holding a white cloth mask in one hand, the Democratic nominee also brought a small card of notes on stage and referred to it while promising to roll back tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.
He said doing so would save “let me see … $92 billion.”
The two men are still scheduled to occupy the same space for a debate for a second and final time next week in Nashville.
Earlier on Thursday, Trump appeared at a rally in North Carolina, underscoring the challenge confronting him in the final weeks as multiple polls have shown him trailing Biden nationally and in many swing states.
Trump has spent much of the week on defence, campaigning in states he won in 2016, such as North Carolina and Iowa, where he campaigned Wednesday.
But despite the polling, Trump predicted a “big, beautiful red wave” on election night, before referencing another one of his major challenges: a cash disadvantage to the Biden campaign, which just announced raising a record-breaking US$383 million (NZ$580m) in September.
– With news.com.au
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