An extra presence onstage was a fly on Mike Pence's head during the vice-presidential debate between him and Kamala Harris Wednesday night in Salt Lake City, USA. Photo: AFP / screenshot CNN

In a pointed but mostly civil debate with Republican Vice President Mike Pence, who sought to portray her as extreme, Democratic vice presidential hopeful Kamala Harris on Wednesday called Donald Trump’s Covid-19 response a historic failure that disqualified him from a second term. 

With Trump’s weekend hospitalization for Covid-19 throwing a new importance on the role of the vice president, Pence and Harris, in Salt Lake City, Utah, spoke separated by plexiglass as a safety precaution 27 days before the election.

Harris, who will be the highest-ranking woman in US history if she enters the White House under a president Joe Biden, wasted no time in attacking Trump’s record on Covid-19, which has killed more than 210,000 people in the United States, more than in any other country.

“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” said Harris, a US senator from California and former prosecutor.

“And, frankly, this administration has forfeited their right to reelection based on this,” Harris said at the 90-minute debate at the University of Utah.

Saying Trump treated front-line health personnel as “sacrificial workers,” Harris – pointing to Trump’s own statements to journalist Bob Woodward – accused the White House of not moving quickly despite knowing the risks of Covid-19.

“The president said it was a hoax. They minimized the seriousness of it,” Harris said.

No name-calling

After a raucous debate eight days ago between Trump and Biden, Pence and Harris took a more civil tone with no name-calling – but they sharply disagreed on the reaction to the pandemic.

“I want the American people to know, from the very first day, President Donald Trump has put the health of America first,” Pence said, pointing to Trump’s ban on travel from China on January 31, a month after cases first emerged in Wuhan.

Referencing a controversy that tanked Biden’s first presidential campaign in 1988, Pence said the Democrats’ Covid plan sounds “a little bit like plagiarism, which is something Joe Biden knows a little bit about.”

In contrast to Trump’s firehose-like blasts on Biden and his family, Pence demonstrated calm and stability and congratulated Harris on the historic nature of her candidacy. 

Harris, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, would also be both the first African-American and Asian-American vice president.

But Pence tried to portray her as a radical, saying that Harris – generally considered close to the Democratic establishment – was farther to the left than socialist former presidential aspirant Bernie Sanders.

“More taxes, more regulation, banning fracking, abolishing fossil fuel, crushing American energy, economic surrender to China is a prescription for American decline,” Pence said, reciting a list that Biden would be unlikely to describe as his platform.

Pence, questioned by moderator Susan Page of USA Today, acknowledged that “the climate is changing” but insisted that market solutions were the best way to reduce carbon emissions.

Even if they delved more into substance, the two candidates revealed little new about their policies and were notably evasive on hot-button issues such as the right to abortion.

In one lighter moment that went without commentary on the stage but that triggered an avalanche of social media posts, Pence spoke with a fly visibly in his hair

‘Great insult’

The two candidates had one of their most intense clashes about racial justice after nationwide protests over police treatment of African-Americans.

Biden “believes that law enforcement has an implicit bias against minorities,” Pence said.

“It’s a great insult to the men and women who serve in law enforcement. And I want everyone to know who puts on the uniform of law enforcement every day, President Trump and I stand with you,” he said.

Pence, criticizing media coverage, insisted that Trump condemned white supremacy – despite what some viewers interpreted at the president’s shout-out to the far-right Proud Boys group at his debate last week.

Harris pointed to a slew of previous statements by Trump including his notorious remark that “fine people” were at a 2017 neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that turned violent.

“I will not sit here and be lectured by the vice president on what it means to enforce the laws of our country,” Harris said.

“I’m the only one on this stage who has personally prosecuted everything from child sexual assault to homicide.”

Two more presidential debates are scheduled, but they are now up in the air with Trump’s diagnosis. 

Biden, 77, has said he would not want to debate if the 74-year-old Trump is still sick with the virus.

But Trump, ever the hyperbolic showman, said in a Wednesday video that he felt “perfect.”

“I think this was a blessing from God that I caught it,” he said.

Trump appeared to be watching the vice presidential debate avidly, tweeting without using Harris’ name that “she is a gaffe machine.”

With Shaun Tandon and Michael Mathes in Washington