WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders blasted President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak during a Democratic debate on Sunday, and touted their own approaches to dealing with a widening crisis that has upended the daily life of Americans.
In their first one-on-one debate, the two Democratic contenders to face Trump in the November election said the Republican president had contributed to growing worries about the global pandemic by spending weeks minimizing the threat before declaring a national emergency on Friday.
The showdown between front-runner Biden and his last viable rival in Sanders, originally scheduled for Phoenix, took place in a Washington studio with no audience, a move made to limit possible exposure to the virus – a sign of how deeply the campaign routine has been reshaped by the global pandemic.
When the two candidates took the stage, they smiled and shared an elbow bump – abiding by the advice of public health officials to avoid handshakes.
Biden committed to choosing a woman as his running mate if he is the Democratic nominee.
“If I’m elected president, my Cabinet, my administration, will look like the country, and I commit that I will in fact appoint and pick a woman as vice president,” he said.
Both candidates used the debate, perhaps the last in the Democratic White House race, as an opportunity to project leadership and a sense of stability in the deepening crisis.
Biden recounted his experience as vice president in the Obama administration in dealing with the Ebola outbreak in 2014. He laid out a coronavirus plan to make testing free and widely available, establish mobile sites and drive-through facilities in each state and provide more help for small businesses hurt by the resulting economic slowdown.
He said he was willing to call out the military to help local officials build hospitals and take other necessary relief steps.
“This is like a war, and in a war you do whatever needs to be done to take care of your people,” Biden said.
Sanders, a democratic socialist senator from Vermont, suggested the first step in responding to the outbreak would be “to shut this president up right now” because he was undermining the response of public health officials.
“We have got to learn that you cannot lie to the American people. You cannot be less than frank about the nature of the crisis,” Sanders said, adding the crisis showed the need for his signature Medicare for All healthcare proposal, which would replace private health insurance with a government-run system.
“Let’s be honest and understand that this coronavirus pandemic exposes the incredible weakness and dysfunctionality of our current healthcare system,” he said.
Biden has opposed the Medicare for All plan, saying it is too costly and he prefers to build on the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, by adding a public option for those who want it.
Biden took a shot at Sanders’ promises to lead a political revolution to sweep in his anti-corporate economic agenda.
“People are looking for results, not a revolution,” Biden said. “That has nothing to do with the legitimate concern about income inequality in America. That’s real. But that does not affect the need for us to act swiftly and very thoroughly and in concert with all the forces we need to bring to bear.”
Biden, 77, and Sanders, 78, have been forced to cancel public events and step off the campaign trail during the crisis. They said they were taking personal steps to stay healthy – avoiding crowds, washing hands and having their campaign staffs work from home.
The debate comes two days before Tuesday’s primaries in the big states of Ohio, Illinois, Florida and Arizona, where another string of Biden victories would give him a nearly unassailable lead in delegates over Sanders.
Both candidates promised to support the eventual nominee, and in a bitter exchange repeated criticism that has come up on the campaign trail before, with Sanders saying Biden was beholden to special interests and Biden accusing Sanders of being too supportive of the gun industry.
Earlier in the day, Biden’s campaign courted the progressive supporters of Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who dropped her White House bid earlier this month but has not endorsed anyone, by promising to back a Sanders plan to make public colleges tuition-free to families with incomes of less than $125,000 a year.
Reporting by John Whitesides and Simon Lewis; Additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in New York and Amanda Becker in Washington; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Peter Cooney