ELECTION 2020

Final presidential forum: More debate, less drama

Handling the pandemic takes center stage

President Donald Trump speaks Thursday during the second and final presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashvill
President Donald Trump speaks Thursday during the second and final presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden 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 and needing to change the campaign’s trajectory, Thursday night’s debate could prove pivotal, though more than 46 million votes already have been cast and there are fewer undecided voters than at this point in previous election years.

The debate did not feature the repeated angry interruptions of the candidates’ other showdown Sept. 29, but the men engaged in a series of clashes.

With two weeks until the Nov. 3 conclusion, the night in Nashville began with a battle over the president’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 225,000 Americans and cost millions of jobs.

Trump again declared that the virus will go away; Biden warned the nation was heading toward “a dark winter.”

Polling suggests the pandemic 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. And he promised that a vaccine would be ready in weeks.

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“It will go away,” said Trump, staying with his optimistic assessment. “We’re rounding the turn. We’re rounding the corner. It’s going away.”

Continued Trump: “We can’t keep this country closed. This is a massive country with a massive economy. There’s depression, alcohol, drugs at a level nobody’s ever seen before. The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself.”

Biden vowed that his administration would defer to scientists on the issue, and asserted 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 he coronavirus — they’re the red states.”

Biden said that America has 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.

“What are you hiding?” Bide asked.

Trump maintained his accountants had 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 Wednesday onstage between the two podiums. But before the debate Thursday night, they were removed.

The debate, moderated by NBC’s Kristen Welker, was a final chance for each man to make his case to a television audience of tens of millions.

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And questions swirled beforehand as to how Trump, whose hectoring performance at the first debate was viewed by aides as a mistake that turned off viewers, would perform amid a stretch of the campaign in which he has taken angry aim at the news media and unleashed personal attacks on Biden and his adult son.

Trump’s campaign held a surprise pre-debate news conference 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 deals.

The former vice president declared discussions about family entanglements “malarkey” and accused Trump of not wanting to talk about the substantive issues.

Turning to the camera at one point, Biden said that “It’s not about his family and my family. It’s about your family, and your family is hurting badly.”

Efforts to avoid the kind of debacle that was televised worldwide in the first debate, each candidate was promised he’d have two minutes of uninterrupted time to deliver opening answers on six major topics picked by the moderator.

To enforce that, a representative of the Commission on Presidential Debates was backstage with a mute button — monitored by a member of each of the Trump and Biden campaigns.

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