Vice-presidential debate: Covid dominates the only head-to-head between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris

Credit: AP

As a blood red sunset bathed the mountains surrounding Salt Lake City, America's political attention turned to two seats on a stage separated by plexi-glass shields - the scene for the sole vice-presidential debate of this election.

With the guests and surrogates filing into the Kingsbury Hall on the University of Utah's campus, I asked Mayor Pete Buttigieg, is the campaign going your way?

"Absolutely," he replied.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who ran for the Democrat candidacy, said the campaign is working well.

The two candidates, Vice President Mike Pence, and Senator Kamala Harris stepped onto the stage as outside the chant of "four more years" from a group of Trump supporters echoed round the neat lawns of the university campus.

After last week's "shout-a-thon" in Cleveland between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, no one quite knew what to expect.

It wasn't perfect but at least this time the American public got a chance to hear from both candidates and there was detailed policy.

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Inevitably, coronavirus dominated from the start.

Senator Harris' opening remarks were a damning indictment of the Trump administration's handling of the pandemic, she called it "the greatest failure of any Presidential administration in our history" - not pulling any punches from the start.

As head of the Coronavirus Task Force, this was uncomfortable listening for Mike Pence.

He tried to undo some of the damage his president's cavalier attitude had created, not least in recent days since his diagnosis with the virus.

Screens separate the candidates and the moderator after the Covid outbreak at the White House. Credit: AP

He looked into the camera and said "Not a day has gone by that I haven't thought of the families who have lost someone".

It was a rare moment of empathy from those at the top of the Republican party.

Last week the moderator tried and failed to keep order.

This week Susan Page of USA Today had greater success.

But even so the vice-president repeatedly ignored her pleas to wind up his remarks, frequently using far more than his allotted time.

It was Senator Harris who had more success in silencing him - "Mr Vice-President, I am speaking" became a familiar refrain during the 90 minutes.

The candidates and their partners wave at each other from a safe social distance. Credit: AP

Perhaps that too will become a campaign badge for the Democratic party.

There were questions on healthcare, the economy, US leadership in the world, the Supreme Court and racial justice - all demonstrating the wide differences between the two campaigns.

On climate change, Senator Harris talked about the existential threat to humanity, when asked a number of times if he agreed, Mike Pence could only say he was proud of the administration's record on the environment and conservation.

"They don't believe in science," was the Senator's verdict.

There was one moment which got social media more excited than any other - a fly appeared to spend several minutes glued to Mike Pence's hair - some wits asking whether it could be effectively tested and traced.

The debate concluded with a question from an eighth grade Utah student, Brecklynn Brown.

"When I watch the news all I see is arguing between Democrats and Republicans," she said.

"If our leaders can't get along how are the citizens supposed to get along?"

It is a question that millions of Americans are wrestling with in the closing stages of this bitterly divisive election.

Come November 3, with this country's leaders be any closer to answering Brecklynn's question?