Final Trump vs Biden debate was more civil than the first – but both landed firm blows

Phew! We actually got to hear some substance.

After their first debate was dominated by rancour and interruptions, this time Joe Biden and Donald Trump were far more focused and restrained.

They were deftly assisted by a moderator who asked considered but thoughtful questions, who was firm without being rude and who respectfully followed up with fact checks when they were needed.

But the debate wasn’t short on attack lines and we saw two candidates deliver starkly different closing arguments on reshaping the immigration system, two divergent prognoses on coronavirus and polar opposite views on climate change.

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Biden clashes with Trump over COVID-19 shutdowns

On COVID-19, Trump promised it was “going away”. Biden by contrast, called for much more stringent federal action to prepare for a “dark winter”.

Predictable takes, but there was one surprise – the president for the first time saying “I take full responsibility” for the impact of the virus. He did also blame China immediately after.

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Trump, Biden…and Abraham Lincoln

On immigration and race, Mr Trump appeared to land some blows, reminding the audience that it was the Obama administration that built cages to house immigrant children and Joe Biden himself who voted for the controversial Crime Bill in 1994 that saw many black men imprisoned for unduly lengthy sentences.

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That could well resonate with black male voters who have long felt alienated by the political class and have haunting memories of that period in US history.

Trump’s opponent was able to return fire, if not quite as overtly, highlighting “institutional racism” and making clear children separated from their parents were not, as the president argued, “well taken care of”. They were in fact effectively made orphans with many still waiting to be reunited.

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What was most memorable and perhaps most effective, was Mr Trump casting Biden as a creature of “the swamp”, brandishing the unproven allegations about Mr Biden’s son, Hunter, to accuse his rival of personally taking money from foreign interests.

An investigation by Senate Republicans found no evidence that Mr Biden, the former vice president, engaged in wrongdoing over his son’s business dealings. But Trump clearly believes the story is his best chance of undermining Biden in these final days.

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Mic cuts and praise for debate moderator

The president put in a strong performance, at times appearing to have the upper hand. That may help to win over some in the wildly small group of undecided voters.

But the polls would suggest he needed a knock-out blow and it didn’t quite feel like that.

He has closed the margins in key states in recent days and he won in 2016 without ‘winning’ the debates.

But the battle lines are more fixed than they were then and reshaping them with just one debate alone seems unlikely.

Mark Gibson

Graduates in Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 1990. Move to Los Angeles California in 2004. Specialized in Internet journalism.

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