The second election debate between American president Donald Trump and his Democratic rival Joe Biden on the night of Thursday to Friday was much more substantive and less chaotic than the first. It remains to be seen whether it will persuade many voters.
The president was calmer and allowed Biden to speak more often. The moderator, White House correspondent Kristen Welker of NBC News, was able to control the debate more than her Fox News colleague Chris Wallace.
At times, Welker acted decisively to get the candidates back on schedule. Although Trump openly questioned her impartiality over the past few days, major clashes between the two remained.
For both candidates, the debate was the last opportunity to present itself to a wide audience of tens of millions of Americans.
The pandemic was the subject of the opening question: if you become president, how will your government deal with the coronacrisis? Experts say that the US is now facing a third wave.
Trump praised the experimental medication he received after his own coronadiagnosis and stated that two pharmacists” within a few weeks ” will complete their development of a vaccine. “The virus will just disappear,” he said several times. “We’re almost out.”
Biden said that Trump paints too rosy a picture and his government did “almost nothing” to stop the outbreak.
He warned that experts predict another 200,000 American deaths by the end of the year.
“We are about to enter a dark winter, a dark winter, and he has no clear plan.”
About his own dream policy he said that he will encourage all Americans to wear mouth caps and provide more testing capacity nationwide.
After that, the concern was raised – traditionally one of the most important electoral issues and this year, of course, particularly acute.
“What I would like to do is a much better health service,” said Trump, without explaining how that should look.
The Republicans have been promising since the beginning of his presidency that they will present an alternative to Obamacare. That has not happened so far.
Biden gave me more details. He dismissed the accusation that he was hostile to the private insurance sector and said he wanted Americans to choose between private and public health insurance.
More personal attacks
In the second half of the debate, the number of personal attacks increased. Trump made an unproven claim that Biden had been paid by foreign governments through his son.
“I have not received a penny from a foreign source in my life,” said Biden.
As a counterattack, he referred to the unveiling of the New York Times that Trump has a Chinese bank account and insisted that the president disclose his tax returns.
The president did not have an effective answer to a question about over 500 migrant children who were separated from their families and whose parents are now unaccounted for. Biden dived right on top of that.
Stronger moments for Trump came during the discussion of a crime law of the 1990s, which then senator Biden was strongly in favour of at the time. The law led to mass support for small-time drug crimes. Minority groups were hit disproportionately hard.
President Trump clearly tried to address his best hesitant voters outside the hard core of his constituency, who broadly endorse his policy, but are deterred by his unpolished and confrontational approach. His advisers had insisted on that change of course. The president has been six months behind his rival in the polls.
A repeated anti-Biden argument that may prove effective on that front is that the former vice president has had a long political career and spent eight years in the White House. According to Trump, Biden had enough time and space to achieve his goals, but failed to do so.
Biden in turn presented the election as a referendum on the presidency of Trump and, more than during the previous debate, was able to discuss his policy plans.
Both Trump and Biden were guilty of the necessary exaggerations, misleading remarks and untruths. The president did that considerably more often than his rival.
The question is whether the candidates managed to persuade many voters. A clear winner did not come forward, and the impact of debates on the final result is usually limited.
Moreover, there are less than two weeks to go until Election Day and tens of millions of Americans have already voted.