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Anger, tensions come out at bitter first US presidential debate

A bruising, chaotic debate between US President Donald Trump and Democratic contender Joe Biden descended into bitter personal attacks, with the candidates seemingly talking over each other almost as much as they finished sentences uninterrupted across 95 minutes.

A bruising, chaotic debate between US President Donald Trump and Democratic contender Joe Biden descended into bitter personal attacks, with the candidates seemingly talking over each other almost as much as they finished sentences uninterrupted across 95 minutes.

The first of three planned debates was hosted on Tuesday by journalist Chris Wallace, who tried to focus on policy issues such as health care, the coronavirus, Supreme Court appointments and climate change.

However, Wallace was repeatedly thwarted by the candidates, and disproportionately by Trump, who attacked Biden’s mental faculties and aimed low-blows at the former vice president’s family. Both men interjected with insults – Biden called Trump a “clown” twice.

“Gentlemen,” the Fox News journalist exclaimed at one point. “I hate to raise my voice but why should I be any different than the two of you,” Wallace said, in a paternalistic tone as the yelling on stage sunk into lowbrow asides and rudeness.

“Frankly, you’ve been doing more interrupting,” Wallace said to Trump, the Republican candidate. “Sir, please stop,” he pleaded repeatedly to the president, at one point conceding that it was becoming impossible to keep track of the discussion.

“You’re the worst president America has ever had, c’mon,” Biden said, sounding particularly frustrated as Trump praised his own handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the US economy, despite 200,000 deaths and a labour market which has haemorrhaged millions of jobs.

The debate also delved into family, with Trump accusing Biden’s son, Hunter, of benefiting over complex business dealings in Russia and Ukraine, as well as the younger Biden’s drug problem.

The Democrat said he was only holding back when it came to attacking Trump‘s family, but would pull no punches regarding the man himself.

He accused the president of being a “puppy” of Russian President Vladimir Putin, while insinuating that the real-estate-mogul-turned-president is a tax cheat and someone who was intentionally inflames race relations.

“This is a president who has used everything as a dog-whistle to try to generate racist hatred, racist division,” Biden said. “He just pours gasoline on the fire.”

The segment of the debate on racism and policing was one of the most intense episodes of the night. The issue has been forefront in the US since the police killing of George Floyd, a black man, in May.

Trump declined to directly condemn white supremacist groups, even when repeatedly asked to do so by the debate moderator, instead contradicting federal law enforcement and blaming most of the political violence in the country on left-wing groups.

The debate – which largely went down as expected, even if it was particularly heated – also saw Biden say that he would accept the election result, whatever it was, while Trump went on an extended diatribe about election fraud, never committing to accepting a loss.

“This is not going to end well,” Trump said, in a comment raising concerns about unrest after Election Day on November 3. “I hope it will be a fair election,” he added.

On economic policy, Trump sought to differentiate himself as the leader who wants to get the economy running again after the lockdowns.

“He will shut it down again, he will destroy this country,” Trump said of Biden’s approach, without any hint that he was being hyperbolic, during the debate in Cleveland, Ohio – an industrialized swing-state that can go either Democrat or Republican this year.

The Democratic challenger said the Obama administration left Trump a “booming” economy, but now, the US is “weaker, sicker, poorer, more divided and more violent.” He accused Trump of lying about having a health care plan. “This man does not know what he is talking about.”

The debate over coronavirus, along with the wider segment on health care, were probably the moments many viewers hoped would give them clarity on policy, but it too was laced with insults.

Biden demanded that Trump get “smarter” about his response or many more people will die, promising a more coordinate strategy if elected.

“Don’t ever use the word smart with me… There is nothing smart about you, Joe,” said Trump.

The president insisted it was thanks to his policies that a Covid-19 vaccine would soon be developed, while Biden cast doubt on whether people could trust inoculations coming out of White House-led projects- a microcosm of the stark divides haunting the country.

Prior to the debate Trump, 74, painted the 77-year-old Biden as mentally deficient and physically unfit, setting a low bar.

The former vice president largely held his ground, without major gaffes – what would be chalked up as a win – regularly laughing off personal attacks, even if there was no stand-out moment or charismatic outburst from the Democratic.

An instant poll of viewers by broadcaster CBS found that most felt the first presidential debate had a “negative” tone.

Specifically, 69 per cent of those surveyed saying they were “annoyed,” and only 17 per cent say they felt the discussion “informed” them.

A majority of viewers thought Biden won, the poll found, though the Democrat held a lead heading into the debate. This matches national polling, which has Biden leading Trump. The two meet again on October 15.

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