By Alex Leary 

After months of distanced sniping, President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden took to the debate stage for a 90-minute clash animated by fresh news developments and an enduring pandemic.

The first of three debates between the two candidates came days after a report alleging how little federal tax Mr. Trump has paid in recent years -- which Mr. Biden quickly seized on -- as well as the president's decision to push ahead with filling a Supreme Court vacancy following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Mr. Trump arrived in Cleveland needing a jolt. He trails in national polls and in a number of key states as some voters are already casting ballots. Mr. Biden faced pressure to show he could withstand an unpredictable adversary and get across key points. Most people may be locked into their choice, polls show, but debates matter and millions watched.

Here are moments that stood out:

The long-awaited Trump-Biden clash: "Will you shut up, man?"

Things got rolling during a discussion about the Supreme Court that veered into a debate over health care, with the candidates repeatedly talking over each other. Both appeared initially comfortable in the setting, with Mr. Trump challenging questions from moderator Chris Wallace and Mr. Biden flashing a wide smile and laughing at some of the president's responses. He tried to directly address viewers, while Mr. Trump made slashing remarks, at times rattling the former vice president. Mr. Trump repeatedly reminded viewers that Mr. Biden has been in office for nearly five decades and questioned why he hadn't accomplished more.

A rhetorical brawl ensued.

Mr. Trump, 74, has long sought to brand his 77-year-old opponent as mentally and physically unfit for the job. More recently the Trump campaign sought to cast the former vice president as a seasoned campaigner, recognizing the risks of lowering the bar too far. Mr. Biden early on held his own, even as he stumbled over words and figures at times.

"I'm not going to listen to him," he said at one point to Mr. Trump's interjections. "Everything he is saying so far is simply a lie." At another point, he said, "Will you shut up, man?"

Mr. Biden's campaign went into the debate bracing for Mr. Trump's anything-goes approach, which aimed to provoke anger or knock him off message. Mr. Trump for his part lashed out at Mr. Biden as being a tool of the far left and questioned his intelligence.

"There's nothing smart about you, Joe," Mr. Trump said. "47 years you have done nothing."

"You're the worst president America has ever had," Mr. Biden later said.

And that was in the first 45 minutes.

Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic

Through it all, the coronavirus remains the defining issue of the race and it provided the sharpest contrasts during the debate.

Mr. Biden sought to portray the president's handling of the coronavirus emergency as a deadly failure. All told, there are 7.15 million confirmed infections in the U.S. -- more than a fifth of the global tally -- and more than 205,000 deaths.

"He panicked," Mr. Biden said, looking directly into the camera as if talking to people at home. Overall, Mr. Biden sought to make the coronavirus a question of trust. "Do you believe for a moment what he's telling you, in light of all the lies he has told you," he asked.

The president countered with the steps he has taken, including restricting some travel and speeding along a vaccine.

"You would have lost far more people," the president said. "He wants to shut down this country and I want to keep it open." Mr. Trump was put on the defensive over mask wearing and holding rallies.

The economy remains one of Mr. Trump's strengths, polls show, and he played to that, accusing his rival of trying to kill any progress that has been made. "People want their places open," he said. "They want to get back to their lives."

Tax records and the economy

Mr. Biden briefly raised the issue of the moment -- his rival's tax records -- but let it pass. Minutes later, though, Mr. Wallace raised the question. Pressed how much in federal taxes he pays, the president replied, "millions of dollars" without detail.

"Release your tax return," Mr. Biden demanded.

Hours before the debate, Mr. Biden did just that, his 2019 tax return, showing he paid nearly $300,000 in federal taxes. The New York Times reported that the president paid $750 for 2016 and the same amount for 2017 -- and zero for years before that.

Mr. Biden has been trying to contrast his modest upbringing in Pennsylvania with Mr. Trump's in New York, and during the debate he framed the election as "Scranton vs. Park Avenue," an appeal to working class voters who helped elect Mr. Trump in 2016.

Mr. Trump has refused to release his returns, counter to decades of presidential precedence, saying he is under audit.

That morphed into a broader discussion about economic policy, giving Mr. Trump room to tout the gains that happened before the pandemic and accusing Messrs. Obama and Biden of presiding over a historically slow economic recovery. He accused Mr. Biden of being weak on China before pivoting to questions about the international business dealings of the former vice president's son, Hunter. Mr. Biden strenuously defended his son.

The meaning of law and order

Racial unrest seen across the country provided another contentious exchange. Mr. Trump has made a tough stance toward protesting and property damage a centerpiece of his campaign and he questioned his rival: "Are you in favor of law and order?"

Mr. Biden responded, "Law and order with justice -- where people get treated fairly." Mr. Biden denied he is in favor of defunding the police, a demand sought by many protesters, and said Mr. Trump was using racial appeals to suburban voters, while not recognizing the suburbs have diversified.

Mr. Trump also brought up the 1994 crime bill, which Mr. Biden helped draft as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill largely increased police and prison funding and created several new categories of federal crime and increased penalties.

"You have treated the Black community about as bad as anybody in this country," said Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump was asked if he would condemn white supremacy and militia groups but he quickly pivoted to groups on the far left. "Sure, I'm willing to do that," he said. "Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I'll tell you what... somebody's got to do something about Antifa and the left."

Dueling Supreme Court arguments

The death of Justice Ginsburg injected the election with a new dynamic and both campaigns have rushed to rally supporters. Mr. Trump explained his push to install conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett. "Elections have consequences," he said. "We have the Senate and we have the White House."

Mr. Biden said the American people should have a say after the election, noting some people have already voted. "That's the only way the American people get to express their view."

Mr. Biden argued a solidly conservative majority could bring an end to the Affordable Care Act, playing up what has been a potent issue for Democrats in recent congressional elections. He also said abortion rights under Roe v. Wade would be in jeopardy.

But Mr. Biden refused to give his position on expanding the court -- as some Democrats want -- or ending the Senate filibuster. "Whatever position I take on that, that will become the issue. The issue is, the American people should speak. You should go out and vote."

Election Day and beyond

Election security was another issue for debate and Mr. Trump continued to attack mail-in ballots as ripe for fraud. He called on his supporters to keep a close watch on voting. "They cheat. They cheat," Mr. Trump said, raising a recent reported case of discarded ballots in Pennsylvania.

Instances of fraud in past elections have been low and the Federal Bureau of Investigation director said last week that the agency hasn't seen "any kind of coordinated national voter fraud effort in a major election." Mr. Trump has also stirred controversy by declining to say he would accept the election results and ensure a peaceful transfer of power, citing ballot issues.

Mr. Biden said he was concerned that a court would settle the election but expressed faith that a clear winner could be declared. "If it's not me, I'll support the outcome," he said.

But Mr. Trump cast doubt on when that outcome would be clear: "We might not know for months, because these ballots are going to be all over."

Write to Alex Leary at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 29, 2020 23:49 ET (03:49 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.