The second presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden was more traditional and civil than their rancorous showdown last month.
With so little time left before Election Day, however, it wasn’t immediately clear if it would amount to anything more than a footnote in a tumultuous contest set against the historic backdrop of an ongoing coronavirus pandemic and economic recession.
The two candidates, gathered in Nashville, Tenn., argued over a wide set of issues, ranging from immigration and the environment to race and energy production. But as with the first debate, the debate started with a wide-ranging discussion over the global health crisis.
Here are five takeaways from the debate:
A steadier Trump, but time is running short
A second and final presidential debate that came less than two weeks before Election Day — and after nearly 50 million people have voted — likely did little to change the fundamentals of the race: Trump is trailing in the polls, and time is running out for a comeback.
For the president and his supporters, that will count as a disappointment — though his improved performance from his last debate might hearten down-ballot Republicans who voiced deep concerns that a poor showing could further weaken an already difficult political climate for the party.
Many Trump supporters will be pleased as well that the president proved capable of defending his record on everything from immigration to criminal justice, while pointedly reminding voters of Biden’s long tenure in public office. He also seemed to hit his stride as the debate wore on, particularly in the night’s half-hour.
But if Trump was less belligerent Thursday, so too was Biden much crisper and on message than the previous debate, when the Democratic nominee often struggled to make his points. He appeared well prepared for most of the night’s topics, ready to respond to the president’s arguments with succinct responses.
“I’m going to shut down the virus, not the country,” he answered at one point, when pushed by Trump on whether he would impose lockdowns on the country if coronavirus cases spiked.
The central challenge for Trump, over the course of two debates and in the race generally, has been the public’s skeptical view of his response to the pandemic. His answers were better on that and other issues Thursday, but the danger he faces is voters’ perceptions have long since hardened.
A lighter tone
The unrelentingly combative tone of the first debate was replaced by a calmer — and far more coherent — affair Thursday, with both Trump and Biden better able to articulate their answers without the other constantly interrupting them mid-sentence. In an election that has been anything but typical, it was a rare night that closely resembled what voters have come to expect in previous presidential debates.
The change was a product, at least in part, of new rules that muted each man’s microphone during the first two minutes of the others’ answer. It also appeared to be a response from Trump to the harshly negative reaction his first debate received, when he was accused of being a blustering bully.
At one point early in the debate, Trump even thanked the debate moderator, NBC News’ Kristen Welker, for letting him answer a question — a far cry from the way he berated Chris Wallce of Fox News last month.
Biden himself was also much crisper with his answers than the first debate, only rarely engaging in a back-and-forth with Trump and focusing instead of making a broader case against the president’s tenure in office.
Two different worlds on coronavirus
Listening to the candidates forecast the future of the coronavirus crisis, you’d think Trump and Biden were speaking from different planets.
The president, who continued to promote the promise of a vaccine — perhaps within weeks — maintained that the country was in the last throes of the pandemic. “It’s going away,” Trump said, even as 1,200 Americans died of the virus on Wednesday.
Biden highlighted Trump’s repeated claims over the past seven months that the virus was receding and offered a somber prediction. “We’re about to go into a dark winter,” Biden declared.
His most stinging indictment of Trump was that his handling of the pandemic disqualified him from a second term.
“Anyone responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America,” Biden said, while also offering assurance that Americans would eventually return to normalcy. “I’m going to shut down the virus, not the country.”
The Hunter Biden hit that wasn’t
For days, the Trump campaign had telegraphed one of its major goals in the final debate: Make Biden’s son, Hunter, a liability and symbol of their opponent’s alleged corruption.
Surprisingly, Hunter’s name was never uttered by Trump, who deployed the attack against “your son,” but did not land the blow he was hoping for.
The muddled back-and-forth over Hunter Biden’s foreign business dealings and profits in China and Ukraine came after nearly a half-hour clash on the coronavirus, an issue that by contrast resonates with almost every American.
Biden denied he had done anything unethical in relation to his son’s work and turned the tables on Trump, who has a Chinese bank account.
“There’s a reason why he’s bringing up all this malarkey,” Biden said. “He doesn’t want to talk about the substantive issues. It’s not about his family and my family. It’s about your family and your family is hurting badly.”
Biden had taken the past four days off the trail to hunker down for the debate. His preparation for this exchange demonstrated that it paid off.
“Biden had a shrewd strategy on Hunter allegations to get it on Trump’s taxes and bank account, and it worked,” said conservative commentator Rich Lowry.
When Trump returned to Biden’s son later in the debate, referring to the “laptop from hell,” Biden swiftly distinguished the issue again by branding it Russian disinformation.
Trump sees an energy opening
Trump has continually tagged Biden as “anti-fracking,” a charge the former vice president has denied to the dismay of environmental activists. Biden would only restrict the practice on federal lands.
But in the waning moments of the debate, Trump appeared to spot a potential wedge to be used against Biden, when the Democrat signaled he would transition away from the use of oil over time, by halting federal subsidies.
It wasn’t a call for an immediate ban, but it was still a position that the president will undoubtedly attempt to score points on as he campaigns through the industrial Midwest during the final days of the race.
“That’s maybe the biggest statement in terms of business,” Trump said, his eyes widening during Biden’s remarks. “Basically what he’s saying is he’s going to destroy the oil industry. Will you remember that Texas? Will you remember that Pennsylvania, Oklahoma?”