First US presidential debate: Five key takeaways

As Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden met on the debate stage Tuesday for the first time in Ohio, moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News struggled to control the candidates.

Stark differences between the 74-year-old president and the 77-year-old former vice president were evident from the outset on the Cleveland stage.

Here are five key takeaways from the first of three scheduled presidential debates before Election Day on November 3.

Trump on the offensive

Trump is no stranger to going on the offensive, but his fighting approach on stage left his Democratic opponent struggling to complete a sentence.

Wallace’s moderation style meant the leader was mostly free to interrupt and rant, breaking the agreed rules surrounding the debate — the Fox News anchor struggled to stop Trump from interrupting and at times seemed to lose control of the debate.

Although at one point the moderator delivered a pointed reproach to Trump for his interruptions. “Frankly, you’ve been doing more interrupting,” Wallace said, appealing to Trump to let his opponent speak.

Biden also talked over Trump when he wasn’t meant to but the Republican did the bulk — at one stage Biden said it was hard to keep up with Trump’s ranting.

Race a hot issue

Neither party pulled any punches on the topic of race.

Trump said Biden was the politician who helped put millions of Black Americans in prison with the 1994 crime law.

Biden called Trump “the racist” in the Oval Office and said: “This is a president who has used everything as a dog whistle to try to generate racist hatred, racist division.”

For a nation confronting a summer of racial unrest — and centuries of injustice — the debate was the latest cultural flashpoint.

Biden was quiet as Trump blitzed him as a tool of the “radical left” and a weak figure who opposes “law and order.” He pressed Biden repeatedly to name any police union that’s endorsed him. He falsely accused Biden of wanting to “defund the police”.

A flashpoint in the debate that has been directed on social media was Trump refusing to condemn armed militias, insisting, against the guidance of his own FBI director: “This is not a right-wing problem. This is a left-wing problem.”

“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” Trump said when prompted on the far-right group. “But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left.”

Biden did not capitalise on the moment, not pushing back until Trump had made his arguments.

Heated personal attacks

As expected, the President found a way to bring up what many saw as his trump card — Hunter Biden.

Trump indeed addressed the former vice president’s son, and recycled allegations about the younger Biden’s international business practices.

Biden called Trump’s litany “discredited” and fired back, “I mean, his family we can talk about all night.”

However, Biden did not call into play any of Trump’s international business dealings and instead turned straight to the camera saying: “This is not about my family or his family. This is about your family.”

Trump later interrupted Biden when he was talking about his deceased son, Beau Biden, who died of cancer in 2015 after having served in Iraq. “I don’t know Beau, I know Hunter,” Trump said.

Trump couldn’t hide from the coronavirus pandemic

Biden dealt a blow when the topic of the coronavirus pandemic came up, calling into question Trump’s leadership by saying his panicked response meant he had failed to protect US citizens and that he cared more about the economy.

“It is what it is because you are who you are,” Biden told the president, referring to Trump’s months of downplaying COVID-19 while he said privately he understood how deadly it is.

But Trump didn’t take the criticism lying down — retorting Biden’s death toll would have been “millions” and the economy would have been worse in the hands of the Democrat.

“There will be a vaccine very soon,” Trump added.

“A lot of people died, and a lot more are going to unless he gets a lot smarter,” quipped Biden.

Side-stepping policy questions

The debate was overall lacking discussion of policy, with little light shed on what either candidate would do if elected.

Not for the first time, Trump was questioned about what he would replace the Obamacare Affordable Care Act with but all he said during the debate is that he wanted to scrap it.

On the other hand, Biden did not give an answer on a question about the Supreme Court and if he would support calls from members of the Democratic party to try to expand the number of judges.

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