WASHINGTON (AP) — In their first one-on-one debate of the Democratic presidential campaign, former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders faced off Sunday night in what could be a clarifying night in the race.
The two men had modest clashes, but the debate carried a mainly civil tone and a unified opposition to President Donald Trump.
Biden has a strong lead in delegates needed to win the nomination heading in Tuesday’s next round of primaries in four states.
The debate underscored this extraordinary moment in American politics and society, as the coronavirus pandemic remakes every aspect of life in the United States. It was moved from Arizona, which votes Tuesday, because of concerns over the pandemic, and was held without an audience.
Biden and Sanders are calling for increased testing in the United States for the rapidly spreading coronavirus and economic relief for Americans suffering as a result of the global pandemic.
Biden and Sanders skipped a handshake, greeting each other instead with an elbow bump, then took their positions at podiums spaced 6 feet apart in keeping with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for limiting the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Sanders noted that he “loves” doing large rallies around the country but has curtailed them and now addresses supporters online. His campaign staff has been working from home and Sanders also noted that, “I’m not shaking hands. Joe and I did not shake hands” to start the debate on Sunday night in Washington.
Biden noted that he doesn’t have any of the “underlying conditions” that make the virus especially dangerous and said he was taking precautions that people in their 30s, 60s, or 80s should be doing.
Biden said his campaign staff was also working from home and that he was washing his hands “God knows how many times” per day and using hand sanitizer almost as much.
Sanders and Biden are addressing how they’d respond to the new virus during the first questions in Sunday’s Democratic presidential debate.
Sanders says President Donald Trump needs to stop “blabbering” with inaccurate information about the novel coronavirus.
Sanders says if he were president he would make sure no one has to pay for coronavirus testing or treatment. Biden later said he also believes no one should have to pay.
Biden is also committing to naming a woman as his running mate if he’s the nominee.
Asked the same question, Sanders didn’t definitively commit but said, “In all likelihood, I will.” Biden has previously said he would seriously consider naming a woman or a person of color as his running mate.
Also Sunday night, Biden repeated a previous pledge to nominate a black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court if given the chance to do so as president.
Both he and Sanders have been under pressure to consider a woman or person of color as a running mate as the once-historically diverse field of Democratic presidential candidates has dwindled to two white men.
Sanders accused Biden of not going far enough on his plans to combat climate change.
To Biden, the Vermont senator said during Sunday night's Democratic debate in Washington, "I know your heart is in the right place" on climate change. But, calling the Paris Climate Accord - which Biden said he would rejoin - “useful,” Biden said that "bold action" was required for the good of the globe.
Biden asserted that his plans are ambitious, noting plans to end offshore drilling, as well as subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, but a need for global action to accomplish real change.
“We could get everything exactly right,” Biden said, of the need for international cooperation. “We’re 15 percent of the problem.”
Biden and Sanders clashed over a dust-up over whether Sanders’ signature health care plan is the best way to respond to the coronavirus.
After Sanders said the Trump administration's response to the outbreak laid bare the weaknesses of the nation's current health care system, Biden pointed out that Italy - where the virus has essentially quarantined the country, has a government-run health care system that hasn't alleviated the problem.
“With all due respect to 'Medicare for All,' you have a single-payer system in Italy,” Biden said. "It doesn't work there."
Sanders responded by noting that experts say “one of the reasons that we are unprepared ... is that we don't have a system.”
Sanders argues his single-payer health care system would provide free treatment for those diagnosed with COVID-19. Biden says he would authorize government funds to cover treatment.
Asked how he as president would alleviate the strains, Sanders said during Sunday night’s debate in Washington that the crisis further shows the need for a holistic overhaul of the country’s economic system.
Saying, “People are looking for results, not a revolution,” Biden stressed he would focus on meeting “immediate needs” like helping Americans make sure not to miss mortgage payments.
Another heated exchange in the first head-to-head debate between Biden and Sanders was over the Vermont senator’s assertion that Biden advocated for cuts in Social Security while serving as a U.S. senator.
Sanders repeatedly asked the former vice president during Sunday night’s debate in Washington if he had pushed for cuts to the entitlement program on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
Sanders also said Biden pushed for cuts needed in Medicare and veterans’ programs.
Biden responded by saying he has laid out a plan for adding to Social Security, as well as how he would pay for the changes -- a critique he has made repeatedly of Sanders’ plans, particularly “Medicare for All.”
Earlier Sunday, the Federal Reserve took massive emergency action to help the economy withstand the coronavirus by slashing its benchmark interest rate to near zero and saying it would buy $700 billion in Treasury and mortgage bonds.
The nation’s largest labor union has lined up behind Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, with the National Education Association on Saturday endorsing the former vice president for the Democratic nomination over his last remaining primary rival Bernie Sanders.
The NEA’s board of directors chose Biden following a recommendation from the organization’s political action committee board, following months of surveying the organizations 3 million members and multipole presidential candidate forums held around the country.
NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia, whose union tops 3 million members, called Biden a “tireless advocate for public education” and “the partner that students and educators need now in the White House.”