NASHVILLE: Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden renewed his attacks on President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic at Thursday's (Oct 22) final debate, seeking to bolster his lead in opinion polls with 12 days to go to the Nov 3 election.
Trump, a Republican, initially adopted a more restrained tone than he did during their first presidential debate in September, which was quickly derailed by his constant interruptions.
But Thursday's clash still featured plenty of personal attacks between two men who evince little respect for each other.
The absence of disruptions yielded a more substantive debate over a range of topics including the economy, race, climate change, healthcare and immigration.
But the coronavirus, which has killed more than 221,000 people in the United States, loomed over the proceedings as it has throughout the campaign.
The televised debate, which took place at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennesee, represented one of Trump's last remaining opportunities to to reshape a race that national opinion polls show he has been losing for months, though the contest is much tighter in some battleground states likely to decide the election.
"Anyone who's responsible for that many deaths should not remain president of the United States of America," Biden said.
Trump, who was far more restrained than at the first debate in September when he aggressively talked over Biden, defended his approach to the outbreak and claimed the worst of the pandemic was in the past.
"We're rounding the corner," said Trump, who has played down the virus for months. "It's going away."
He added that the country could not afford to close businesses again despite fresh surges.
"We're learning to live with it. We have no choice."
Trump, whose instinct remains to run as an outsider, portrayed Biden as a career politician whose nearly 50-year record was insubstantial.
But he did not lay out a clear agenda for a second term, while Biden returned again and again to Trump's four years as president, pointing to the economic damage the virus has done to people's lives.
Opinion polls show most Americans disapprove of the president's response to the virus.
Several US states, including the election swing state of Ohio, reported record single-day increases in COVID-19 infections on Thursday, evidence the pandemic is accelerating anew.
The first segment of the debate was far more civil than the candidates' first clash in September, when Trump's constant interruptions and exchanges of personal insults derailed the evening.
As a result, each candidate's microphone on Thursday was switched off while his opponent made a two-minute introductory statement on a topic. Even after the microphones were turned back on during discussion periods, however, the candidates largely allowed each other to speak.
After an opening segment on the pandemic, Thursday's clash pivoted to rapid-fire exchanges over whether either candidate had improper foreign entanglements.
Trump repeated his accusations that Biden and his son Hunter engaged in unethical practices in China and Ukraine. No evidence has been verified to support the allegations, and Biden called them false and discredited.
Trump's effort to uncover dirt on Hunter Biden's Ukraine business ties led to the president's impeachment. The president and his children have been accused of conflicts of interest of their own since he entered the White House in 2017, most involving the family's international real estate and hotel businesses.
Biden defended his family and said unequivocally that he had never made "a single penny" from a foreign country, before pivoting to accuse Trump of trying to distract Americans.
"There's a reason why he's bringing up all this malarkey," Biden said, looking directly into the camera. "It's not about his family and my family. It's about your family, and your family's hurting badly."
He also accused Trump of skirting his taxes, citing a New York Times investigation that reported Trump's tax returns show he paid almost no federal income tax over more than 20 years.
"Release your tax returns or stop talking about corruption," Biden said.
Trump, who has broken with decades of precedent in refusing to release his tax returns, said he had paid "millions." He again said he would release his returns only once a longstanding audit was completed.
Biden faulted Trump for avoiding responsibility for the pandemic.
"I take full responsibility," Trump said. "It's not my fault that it came here, it's China's fault."
Trump claimed on Thursday that a vaccine was close to ready, saying approval would be announced within "weeks" before acknowledging that it was not a guarantee.
Most experts, including administration officials, have said a vaccine is unlikely to be widely available until mid-2021.
The candidates clashed over healthcare, China policy and - after months of anti-racism protests - race relations with Biden saying Trump was "one of the most racist presidents" in history.
"He pours fuel on every single racist fire," Biden said. "This guy has a dog whistle as big as a foghorn."
Trump responded by criticising Biden's authorship of a 1994 crime bill that increased incarceration of minority defendants while asserting that he had done more for Black Americans than any president with the "possible" exception of Abraham Lincoln in the 1860s.
AT ODDS OVER HEALTHCARE, OIL IN THE SPOTLIGHT
During a segment on climate change, Biden said his environmental plan would "transition from the oil industry" in favor of renewable energy sources, prompting Trump to go on the attack.
"He is going to destroy the oil industry," Trump said. "Will you remember that, Texas? Will you remember that, Pennsylvania?"
Biden said he simply wanted to eliminate federal subsidies for oil companies, a point he reiterated to reporters following the debate. "We're not getting rid of fossil fuels for a long time," he said.
Biden also criticised Trump's effort to persuade the US Supreme Court to invalidate the Affordable Care Act, the sweeping healthcare reform passed when Biden was vice-president in President Barack Obama's administration.
"People deserve to have affordable healthcare, period," Biden said, noting that the law prevented insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.
Trump said he wanted to replace the ACA with something "much better" that would offer the same protections, even though the administration has yet to propose a comprehensive healthcare plan despite a promise to do so for years.
Biden denounced Trump's friendship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, likening his diplomacy to working with Hitler.
In a sharp clash in their final presidential debate, Biden attacked Trump's insistence that he has avoided war through his summits with Kim Jong Un.
"He's talked about his good buddy, who's a thug," Biden said of the young North Korean leader.
"That's like saying we had a good relationship with Hitler before he invaded Europe - the rest of Europe. Come on."
But Biden indicated he was also willing to meet with Kim, saying his condition would be that Pyongyang works to make the Korean peninsula "a nuclear-free zone".
Trump said that former president Barack Obama had left him "a mess" on North Korea and had warned him of the risk of "nuclear war."
After the summits, "we have a very good relationship. And there's no war", said Trump, who also played down North Korea's recent unveiling of a massive new long-range missile at a military parade.
"He didn't like Obama," Trump said of Kim not meeting the former president. "He didn't like him. He wouldn't do it."
Biden, who was vice president under Obama, hit back that Obama would not meet Kim because he was pushing stronger sanctions.
"President Obama said we're going to talk about denuclearisation. We're not going to legitimise you."
Relatively few voters have yet to make up their minds, and Trump's window to influence the outcome may be closing. A record 47 million Americans already have cast ballots, eclipsing total early voting from the 2016 election.
Though Trump trails former vice-president Biden significantly in national polls, the contest is much tighter in some battleground states where the election will likely be decided.
Trump is currently trailing Biden by eight percentage points, the latest Reuters/Ipsos national poll showed.