New York, Oct 23 With a microphone muzzle in place for most of the last presidential debate, a somewhat chastened US President Donald Trump took the stage with his Democratic challenger Joe Biden, fending off charges of negligence and ineptitude in facing the Covid-19 pandemic.
Trump hit back against Biden on his family's alleged foreign business dealings, calling them "corrupt" during the hour-and-a-half debate on Thursday night in Nashville, Tennessee, which was the final one held 12 days before the November 3 election.
Knowing his microphone was turned off during the introductory two minutes given to Biden at the start of each of the six topics in the debate, the President let him talk and his interruptions during the question periods were minimal, in contrast to the near chaos that marked the first debate on September 25 as the two clashed.
Except for Trump's behaviour, the debate was mostly a series of deja vu as they hashed out issues like the pandemic, race relations, inequality, the economy, the President's tax filings and Biden's family deals, which have been aired continuously during the campaign.
Allegations and counter-allegations dominated the debate with little talk of a concrete agenda.
Both sides claimed victory.
Biden's running mate Kamala Harris tweeted with an appeal for money: "Tonight, @JoeBiden not only won the debate a" he took a stand against Trump and all of the harm this administration has caused. Join us in this fight by adding a donation."
Vice President Mike Pence tweeted: "President @realDonaldTrump Won Tonight's Presidential Debate Hands Down! Congratulations Mr. President! #MAGA (Make America Great Again)."
Biden's strategy was to make the case for a referendum on Trump's 46 months in office, while the President kept asking him about his eight years as Vice President.
Biden at times appeared to try to put a distance from Barack Obama, his President, over inaction on some issues he was now advocating.
To the disappointment of Trump's campaign, foreign policy was not a separate topic at the debate, with North Korea, India, Russia, China and Ukraine appearing tangentially.
In the only reference to India, Trump said" "Look at India, it's filthy, its air is filthy," as he compared the US environment to that of that country, Russia and China.
Predicting a "dark winter", Biden spoke of the 225,000 people who have died from the coronavirus pandemic and the continuing toll for which he said Trump was responsible and challenged his claim that the US was turning the corner on the disease.
Trump said that he had been able to stop the millions of deaths that had been predicted and repeated the allegation that Biden had opposed his plan to stop travellers coming in from China calling it "xenophobic".
Trump refused to categorically set the date for a Covid-19 vaccine release next month only saying it could be in November or in December with at least four companies in advanced stages of testing.
Biden said that Trump was being callous in pushing for reopening the country, but also denied the accusation that he wanted to shut down the country.
Trump raised Biden's son Hunter's business dealings as well as that of his brothers, who he said had lucrative contracts in Iraq. He alleged that some of the money must have gone to the former Vice President.
Biden was on the defensive, denying that he had received any money while not denying unequivocally about his family member's deals.
Hunter Biden, who was removed from the US military for alleged drug use and had no international business experience, is documented to have been made a director of a Ukrainian gas company with payments of tens of thousands every month when his father was dealing with that country.
He also travelled on an official plane with his father to China, where he got a deal for Chinese government-linked companies to give him over a billion dollars to invest.
On immigration, Joe Biden said: "Within 100 days, I'm going to send to the Us Congress a pathway to citizenship for over 11 million undocumented people."
Trump said that Biden had done nothing about it in the eight years as vice president and criticised what he said was the Obama administration policy of "catch and release" of criminals coming into the country illegally.
Asked about the children separated at the border when they were caught while illegally crossing into the US, Trump said that he would try to reunite them with their parents and said the separation had been done under the Obama-Biden administration policies and they had built the "cages" the children were put in.
Trump did not say anything about his own plan for merit-based immigration.
Biden hit at Trump's refusal to disclose his tax filings and a New York Times claim that he had only paid $750 in taxes in a particular year.
The President repeated his defence that his tax filings were being audited and that he had paid tens of millions in advance tax payments.
On race, Biden and the moderator, Kristen Welker, accused Trump of being divisive and insensitive to African-Americans.
Trump made the hyperbolic claim that he had done the most for African-Americans since Abraham Lincoln through his crime legislation to undo some of the harsh penal measures enacted with Biden's support that hit them hard and also cited the pre-coronavirus historic low unemployment rates for them.
Biden was forced by Welker to admit that the crime legislation he had advocated that disproportionately got thousands of African-Americans long imprisonment was a "mistake".
While Biden hit back against Trump's economic policy saying that it benefitted only the rich and the investors, the president asserted that Wall Street gave more money to Biden that to him.
Several reports have said that despite some of Trump's policies sending the stock market to new heights and Biden's threat of raising the taxes on the rich, Wall Street sent more money to Biden's and his party's campaigns.
Biden's basic appeal was for voting for what he said was his character in contrast to Trump's.
He said: "You know who I am. You know who he is. You know, his character. You know, my character, you know, reputations for honour and telling the truth."
Trump's underlying message was that economic ruination and physical insecurity awaits the nation if Biden wins.
(Arul Louis can be reached at arul.l@.in and followed on Twitter at @arulouis)
( With inputs from IANS )
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