By John McCormick and Alex Leary 

President Trump and Democrat Joe Biden offered starkly differing views of the administration's handling of the coronavirus pandemic and traded accusations about their personal finances Thursday night, as they appealed to a relatively small pool of undecided voters in the final debate before the Nov. 3 election.

The tone of the debate, held as 47 million Americans have already cast ballots, was more cordial than during the pair's first meeting three weeks earlier, with fewer interruptions as the candidates' microphones were muted at times.

Mr. Trump, who frequently interrupted Mr. Biden and the moderator at the first debate, offered a less-combative delivery Thursday, and both candidates delved further into policy issues than at the first meeting.

"We closed up the greatest economy in the world in order to fight this horrible disease that came from China," Mr. Trump said of the pandemic, while arguing his administration had taken tough steps to save lives, noting his own battle with the virus. "We're rounding the turn. We're rounding the corner. It's going away."

Mr. Biden countered that the president lacked a national strategy and had misled Americans about the severity of the crisis that claimed more than 222,000 lives across the country, with 8.3 million reported U.S. infections.

"Anyone who's responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America," Mr. Biden said as he provided the latest statistics on new cases and deaths. "We're in a circumstance where the president thus far still has no plan, no comprehensive plan."

The former vice president offered stark predictions about the nation's potential challenges ahead with the pandemic, saying many more people would die without a change in strategy.

"We're about to go into a dark winter, a dark winter," Mr. Biden said. "He has no clear plan and there's no prospect that there's going to be a vaccine available for the majority of the American people before the middle of next year."

The president said the country cannot remain locked up, jabbing that his rival has remained in a basement during the campaign. Mr. Biden made few in-person appearances over the summer and has a lighter travel schedule than the president.

"We can't close up our nation or you're not going to have a nation," Mr. Trump said, a point he made repeatedly.

"I'm going to shut down the virus, not the country," Mr. Biden said, adding that the country needs more resources to allow schools and businesses to fully reopen.

Mr. Trump repeatedly suggested Mr. Biden and his family members had benefited financially from his time as vice president, when his son Hunter Biden had business dealings in Ukraine.

A report released by Senate Republicans said two Obama administration officials raised concerns that Hunter Biden's position on the board of a Ukrainian natural-gas company created the perception of a conflict of interest with his father's work. The report did not find that Joe Biden sought the removal of a Ukrainian prosecutor to protect the company from investigation.

"I have not taken a penny from any foreign source ever in my life," Mr. Biden said.

The former vice president also said Mr. Trump should release his tax returns. The president has so far broken a four-decade-long tradition of major-party presidential candidates and presidents doing so. Mr. Trump said, as he has before, that he couldn't release his tax returns because he was under audit.

Despite the clashes, the tone early on was far more cordial, with both men respecting each other's time, though it intensified over a discussion about foreign interference in the election that morphed into a back-and-forth over who had benefited from other countries.

The event at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., was expected to be their last joint appearance before a large television audience, with national polls showing the incumbent trailing and his campaign at a cash disadvantage.

The face-off was held as 47 million ballots -- more than a third of the total 2016 vote -- have already been cast. Both campaigns are mostly focused on turning out their supporters and making closing arguments to the few remaining undecided voters.

The gathering, moderated by NBC's Kristen Welker, included a first for a modern presidential debate: Each candidate had their microphone muted at times. The nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates wanted to better control the session, after 2020's first and only other presidential debate featured frequent interruptions, mostly by Mr. Trump.

The 90-minute event was to include six 15-minute segments addressing the topics of fighting the pandemic, American families, race relations, climate change, national security and leadership.

Tumultuous news cycles dominated by the pandemic, economic challenges and racial unrest have failed to move the needle much on the race's national polling for most of the summer and fall.

A national poll average from RealClearPolitics shows Mr. Trump trailing Mr. Biden by 7.9 percentage points, and state surveys suggest he's also facing close contests in some battlegrounds he easily won four years ago. He and his aides have projected optimism by suggesting that the surveys are wrong, as some were in states that delivered his 2016 victory.

On a day when Senate Republicans took another step toward installing Amy Coney Barrett, Mr. Trump's third Supreme Court pick, Mr. Biden said in an excerpt released Thursday of a CBS interview that if he won he planned to create a bipartisan commission to study overhauling the nation's judiciary. Some on the left have called to expand the high court as a way to offset what they said is an outsize conservative grip on the panel.

His campaign has not said what possible changes the review would consider. Symone Sanders, a senior Biden campaign adviser, told reporters Thursday that the commission would recommend "ways to restore balance to the Supreme Court," but would also focus on the federal judiciary at large.

The former vice president has resisted calls from liberal segments of his party to endorse an expansion of the Supreme Court, following the Sept. 18 death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In the first debate, Mr. Biden declined to answer questions over whether he would expand the size of the nation's top court, saying he would announce his position before the election.

The former vice president's campaign started October with a cash-on-hand balance almost three times as large as Mr. Trump's, giving him a financial edge in race's closing days. Mr. Biden had $177.3 million at the end of last month, compared with $63.1 million for Mr. Trump, filings with the Federal Election Commission this week showed.

Mr. Biden plans to speak Friday near his home in Delaware on how he would address the pandemic and bolster the economy, followed by a Saturday visit to Bucks County, Pa. He ramped up his travel schedule this fall, but he spent most of this week at home preparing for the debate.

Mr. Trump has been doing campaign rallies nearly every day and is set to travel to his adopted home state of Florida. He is scheduled to hold rallies Friday in The Villages, a mega retirement community in the center of the state, and then Pensacola, another area when his campaign wants to run up the vote total.

Saturday morning, Mr. Trump is expected to cast an in-person early vote in West Palm Beach and then hold rallies in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin.

--Joshua Jamerson, Madeleine Ngo and Sabrina Siddiqui contributed to this article.

Write to John McCormick at and Alex Leary at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 22, 2020 22:38 ET (02:38 GMT)

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