WASHINGTON — Facing each other one-on-one for the first time on a debate stage, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders sought to assure voters on Sunday that each was best positioned to lead the nation through the current coronavirus pandemic.
Biden and Sanders (I-Vt.) engaged in a spirited two-hour exchange that underscored just how much the fast-moving virus that causes COVID-19 has disrupted everyday norms. Instead of handshakes, they greeted each other with quick elbow bumps. Both stood on podiums set 6 feet apart, as recommended by federal health officials, and there was no studio audience to jeer or cheer the candidates.
The debate came at a critical juncture in Sanders’ campaign. Once the front-runner, he now trails Biden in the number of delegates needed to secure the Democratic nomination at the party’s July convention, and polls show Sanders behind Biden in Florida, Illinois, Ohio and Arizona, which hold their primaries on Tuesday.
“Biden is not a great debater, but he did appear to be a bit more fluid, a little more relaxed, a little less disoriented in this debate,” said William Howell, a political-science professor at the University of Chicago. “He certainly did well enough to keep whatever momentum he has going.”
Here are some takeaways from Sunday’s debate.
Responding to coronavirus
When asked to lay out their coronavirus responses, both candidates agreed about the severity of the crisis at hand and found common ground in denouncing President Donald Trump’s handling of the virus outbreak. But they offered different approaches to how they would mobilize a federal response.
Biden spoke about the immediate needs at hand, saying Americans “are looking for results, not a revolution,” while Sanders argued that the crisis underscored more broader issues with the nation’s health care system and worker protections that needed to be addressed.
“One of the reasons that we are unprepared, and have been unprepared, is we don’t have a system. We’ve got thousands of private insurance plans,” Sanders said. “That is not a system that is prepared to provide health care to all people in a good year, without the epidemic,” added Sanders, who is pushing a government-run "Medicare for All" plan.
Biden repeatedly emphasized that action was needed “right now.”
“This is a crisis. We’re at war with a virus. It has nothing to do with copays or anything,” Biden said.
Tomeka Robinson, a professor of rhetoric at Hofstra University, said that in a debate in which both candidates laid out their “support for science-based approaches and economic recovery for struggling families dealing with the fallout of the crisis,” neither candidate likely moved the needle much in terms of their current support.
“I don’t think there will be strong shifts based on this debate for any candidate,” she said.
Howell said the debate did provide viewers with an opportunity to hear more substantive answers, compared with previous debates of the season that at times featured up to 10 candidates speaking over one another.
“It didn’t seem like a debate, but an exchange between two rivals,” he said. “It was much more gratifying than just seeing who had the best one-liner or zinger of the night.”
Madame vice president?
Biden and Sanders both have floated the prospect of choosing a female running mate, but on Sunday, it was Biden who gave a full-throated commitment to choosing a woman as vice president, while Sanders seemed to hedge on announcing his decision.
"If I'm elected president, my Cabinet, my administration will look like the country, and I commit that I will, in fact, appoint a woman to be vice president," Biden said. "There are a number of women qualified to be president tomorrow."
Asked by the moderators about his plans, Sanders said “in all likelihood” he would nominate a woman, but noted there were other factors at play, including vetting a candidate’s progressive credentials.
Biden also promised to nominate the first black woman to serve on the Supreme Court should a vacancy come up.
Biden’s pledge to select women for two of the nation’s highest posts underscores the importance of female voters to both parties. Studies have shown that women turn out to cast ballots in larger numbers than registered male voters.
David Axelrod, a senior strategist for former President Barack Obama, noted on Twitter that Biden’s “unequivocal pledge to put a woman on the ticket will excite many Democrats but also send a strong message that he’s thinking beyond the primaries to the general election. The stories — and lobbying — will now begin about who it might be.”
Sanders’ national campaign spokeswoman, Brianha Joy Gray, described Biden’s announcement “a political ploy.”
"As a woman, I see everyone trying to make the story about Joe picking a female VP, which is an old story, not news … Feminism isn't a political ploy. It matters,” Gray tweeted.
Courting the Hispanic vote
Florida and Arizona also are regarded as must-win swing states for any candidate looking to defeat Trump in the general election.
Both states have a sizable Hispanic American electorate, and both candidates attempted to make direct appeals to it at Sunday’s debate, which was co-hosted by Univision, one of the nation’s largest Spanish-language TV networks.
Sanders, who has made deep inroads with Hispanic voters out west, according to exit polls in California and Nevada, two states he decisively won, noted that his Medicare for All proposal is the first to offer guaranteed coverage to immigrants living in the country illegally.
“One of the things we have to do is to make sure that everybody feels comfortable getting the health care that they need,” Sanders said, when asked what he would say to immigrants who fear that getting tested for coronavirus will put them at risk for deportation.
Biden was forced to confront the record number of deportations under the Obama administration, an issue that has put him at odds with some of the nation’s largest immigrant advocacy groups. The former vice president promised that he would “immediately” push a bill to lawmakers “that requires the access to citizenship for 11 million undocumented folks” and that in his first 100 days in office, he would suspend deportations — with the exception of felons.
“It's about uniting families, it's about making sure that we can both be a nation of immigrants as well as a nation that is decent,” Biden said.