President Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden traded accusations of graft and clashed on the Covid-19 pandemic Thursday but without landing a knockout blow 12 days before the election in a final debate that many saw as Trump’s last big chance to change the narrative.
Perhaps the most startling aspect of the debate in Nashville, Tennessee, turned out to be the relative civility compared to the disastrous first debate last month when Trump spent much of the time shouting frontrunner Biden down.
This time, Trump called his Democratic opponent “Joe” and even lauded the moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News, who had a mute button to keep order, saying: “I respect very much the way you’re handling this, so far.”
The most heated early exchanges were over mutual accusations of graft.
Trump had signalled he’d try to damage Biden with his pursuit of murky accusations that his son Hunter was involved in graft in China and Ukraine while Biden was vice president under Barack Obama.
Trump, 74, did try to raise the issue repeatedly, saying there were “damning” allegations. He put Biden, 77, on the spot by saying: “I think you owe an explanation to the American people.”
Biden flipped the attack, saying no wrongdoing by his family had ever been shown and that serious questions were mounting around Trump himself, including his holding of a bank account in China and failing to publish his US tax returns.
“What they do know is that you are not paying your taxes, or you’re paying taxes that are so low,” he said, referring to reports on leaked tax data that shows Trump has paid at most $750 in federal income taxes during recent years.
But Biden’s heaviest weapon, as throughout his campaign against Trump, was criticism of the president’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, which has now killed some 220,000 Americans.
He warned of a “dark winter” coming.
“Two hundred and twenty thousand Americans dead. If you hear nothing else I say tonight, hear this,” Biden said, addressing the television audience. “Anyone who’s responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America.”
Trump, who was hospitalized with coronavirus this month but has since recovered, hit back by defending his push to reopen the United States as soon as possible, even when medical experts warn that more caution is needed.
“We’re rounding the turn. We’re rounding the corner. It’s going away,” Trump said.
“We have a vaccine that’s coming, it’s ready, it’s going to be announced within weeks.”
With cases rising rapidly around the country again, a Quinnipiac University poll Thursday found that nearly six in 10 people think the coronavirus is out of control.
Trump and Biden also traded blows on the US leader’s friendship with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, which the president said had kept the peace in the Korean peninsula, after Biden and Obama bequeathed him “a mess” and the threat of “nuclear war.”
“He’s talked about his good buddy, who’s a thug,” Biden said of the young North Korean leader.
“That’s like saying we had a good relationship with Hitler before he invaded Europe – the rest of Europe,” he said. “Come on.”
Whether the showdown at Belmont University in the country music capital can really shift the election is itself up for debate.
“Both candidates clearly learned important lessons from the inaugural debate that was so poorly received,” said Aaron Kall, an expert on presidential debates at the University of Michigan.
“But with only 12 days until the election and tens of millions of Americans early voting, it may be too late to fundamentally alter the upcoming election.”
Some 45 million Americans are estimated to have joined an unprecedented wave of early voting and polls indicate that almost all voters have already firmly made up their minds. Biden is steadily ahead, with the Quinnipiac University national poll putting him up at 51 percent to Trump’s 41.