It was a cool, pleasant evening outside in Cleveland, Ohio, site of the first presidential debate in the 2020 campaign. But inside the Samson Pavilion on the campus of Case Western Reserve University, it got hot and rather unsociable -- quickly.
The skeleton of a script had been laid out a few days before the debate by moderator Chris Wallace. The topics to be discussed were: the candidates' records, the Supreme Court, COVID-19, the economy, race and violence in the nation's cities, and the integrity of the election. And the script called for six 15-minute acts (with no intermission), one for each topic.
But politicians – particularly if they've been slinging barbs at each other for weeks via social media – are apt to go off-script sometimes. And that's what happened Tuesday night.
It took no time at all for the two candidates to start talking over each other when the first question posed by Wallace dealt with the president's nominee to the Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett. The difference of opinion, not surprisingly, centered on whether the vacancy left by the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg should be filled before or after the November 3 election.
Declaring that “I was not elected for three years, I’m elected for four years," Trump insisted he had every right to select Barrett to replace Ginsburg, who died earlier this month.
The two men frequently interrupted each other with angry interjections, with Biden eventually snapping at Trump “Will you shut up, man?”
“The fact is that everything he’s said so far is simply a lie,” Biden said. “I’m not here to call out his lies. Everybody knows he’s a liar.”
The vitriol exploded into the open when Biden attacked Trump's handling of the pandemic, saying that the president “waited and waited" to act when the virus reached America's shores and “still doesn’t have a plan.” Biden told Trump to “get out of your bunker and get out of the sand trap” and go in his golf cart to the Oval Office to come up with a bipartisan plan to save people.
Trump snarled a response, declaring that “I'll tell you, Joe, you could never have done the job that we did. You don’t have it in your blood."
“I know how to do the job,” was the response from Biden.
On more than one occasion, the former vice president referred to Trump as a "clown" -- and the president told Biden during the discussion on law and order that the "radical left" in America will "have you wrapped around their finger" if elected.
The first 'COVID-time' debate
There was little of the pageantry usually associated with a presidential debate, which typically draws a crowd of thousands. But like many other things in 2020, this gathering was different: because of COVID-related precautions, the crowd was limited to about 100 people, all of whom had been tested for the virus and were required to wear surgical masks and sit "socially distanced" from each other. The candidates themselves were not required to were masks.
According to a Monmouth University poll, about 3 in 4 voters (74%) planned to watch the debate live, although just 3% say that they were very likely to hear something that will impact their eventual vote choice. Another 10% said this is somewhat likely to happen and 87% said this is not likely.
Two more debates are scheduled between Trump and Biden: October 15 in Miami, and October 22 in Nashville. The two vice-presidential candidates square off October 7 in Salt Lake City.
In the hours leading up to the debate, both campaigns looked to one-up each other.
Biden released his 2019 tax returns just days after the revelations about Trump’s tax history, including that he allegedly paid only $750 a year in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017 and nothing in many other years. The Bidens paid nearly $288,000 in federal income taxes in 2019.
Meanwhile, trying to hammer home Trump's claim that Biden is not up to the job of president, the president's campaign pushed out a number of pre-debate accusations, including that the former vice president asked for numerous breaks during the 90-minute debate and had backed out of a search meant to rule out that either man was wearing an earpiece from which he could be fed answers.
The Biden campaign angrily denied the accusations and, in a conference call Tuesday afternoon, chided reporters for biting on a Trump gambit.
Associated Press contributed to this article.