Democratic nominee Joe Biden will compete against President Donald Trump for TV audiences in dueling town halls on Thursday night instead of meeting face-to-face for their second debate as originally planned.
Biden denounced the White House's handling of the virus that has claimed more than 215,000 American lives, declaring that it was at fault for closing a pandemic response office established by the Obama administration. Trump, meanwhile, was defensive and insisted that the nation was turning the corner on the virus, even as his own battle with the disease took center stage.
At the same time, Biden was repeatedly pressed to clarify his position on whether he will support adding members to the Supreme Court and was forced to defend his earlier comment that if Black Americans don't support him "you ain't Black," his work on the 1994 crime bill and his positions on fracking and the Green New Deal.
Biden's town hall brought a notably softer approach with audience questions. The former vice president, who struggled growing up with a stutter, stuttered slightly at the start of the show and at one point squeezed his eyes shut and slowed down his response to clearly enunciate his words. At times his answers droned on.
Dressed in a blue suit and holding a white cloth mask in one hand, the Democratic nominee also brought a small card of notes on stage and referred to it while promising to roll back tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.
He said doing so would save “let me see... $92 billion.”
The town halls offered a different format for the two candidates to present themselves to voters, after the pair held a chaotic and combative first debate late last month. The difference in the men’s tone was immediate and striking.
NBC stood fast to its decision to hold a Thursday town hall with Trump at the same time as Biden's event.
Cesar Conde, chair of the NBC Universal News Group, said the network shared the frustration of critics of the dueling town halls. He said the decision was based on fairness, not business considerations.
“We aired a town hall with Vice President Biden on Oct. 5 at 8 p.m.,” Conde said. “If we were to move our town hall with President Trump to a later time slot we would be violating our commitment to offer both campaigns access to the same audience and the same forum.”
NBC said it reached out to ABC, asking its rival to change the time of its Biden telecast, but was turned away. ABC scheduled its event last week; NBC announced its own town hall Wednesday.
Thursday was supposed to be the night of the second of three Trump-Biden debates. After Trump tested positive for COVID-19, the Commission on Presidential Debates said it wanted to change the format from in-person to virtual, but Trump declined to participate.
So with the candidates suddenly free on a night they planned to debate, the networks jumped in with their own offers.
At a rally in North Carolina on Thursday, Trump called NBC “the worst” and said he was being set up with the town hall. He said the network went easy on Biden a week earlier by asking him “questions a child could answer.”
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NBC News figures have been quiet publicly, though MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, interviewing Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris on Wednesday, asked if she was “as mad as everybody else” about the decision to show both events at the same time. “I'm not touching that," Harris replied.
To an extent, the uproar was reflective of a different time in television. Conde noted that the Trump town hall would be available later on its digital news platforms, YouTube and the Peacock streaming service.