Biden and Sanders confront coronavirus crisis in first one-on-one debate

Lauren Gambino in Washington

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders auditioned in real time for the job of president on Sunday night during the first one-on-one debate of the Democratic primary, as the world confronts the growing threat of the coronavirus pandemic and American public health officials warned the worst is yet to come.

The fast-escalating national emergency dominated the prime-time encounter between two candidates with starkly different visions for the country. Yet Biden and Sanders vigorously agreed on the need for a much more aggressive government response to the virus, which had already resulted in 3,244 confirmed cases in the US, with 62 reported deaths, as of Sunday night.

“This is bigger than any one of us,” Biden said. “This calls for a national rallying for one another.”

Biden, who has presented himself as a pragmatic standard-bearer, compared the battle against the disease to a war, calling for a whole-of-government strategy that includes deploying the the military and enacting a “multi-multi-billion-dollar programto address the public health and economic crises.

Sanders, a democratic socialist, urged sweeping economic reforms and the creation of a single-payer healthcare system. He said the pandemic had revealed “the dysfunctionality” of the country’s patchwork healthcare system, arguing that the adoption of a Medicare for All-style system like the one he has championed would help mitigate the toll of future pandemics.

“One of the reasons that we are unprepared, and have been unprepared, is we don’t have a system,” Sanders said. “We’ve got thousands of private insurance plans. That is not a system that is prepared to provide healthcare to all people in a good year, without the epidemic.”

But Biden said a single-payer healthcare system was not the solution, pointing to Italy, where the outbreak has overwhelmed the country’s national health services.

“People are looking for results, not a revolution,” Biden said.

Both candidates were sharply critical of Donald Trump’s ability to lead the nation through a time of crisis.

“Well, the first thing we have got to do, whether or not I’m president, is to shut this president up right now,” Sanders said. “He’s undermining the doctors and the scientists who are trying to help the American people.”

After the debate, which Trump deemed “VERY boring”, his campaign operation accused the candidates of “plagiarizing” the president’s response to coronavirus, which it described as “a model for all future pandemics”.

At a press conference from the White House on Sunday afternoon, Trump urged Americans to “relax” and refrain from hoarding food. But moments later, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned: “The worst is, yes, ahead for us.”

The two-hour debate, hosted by CNN and Univision, took place as viewers across the nation retreated into their homes amid disruptive, even draconian, efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus. Hours earlier, New York City had ordered public schools closed; California had asked bars to shutter, and the Federal Reserve announced it was slashing interest rates to near zero.

As the debate opened, the US Centers for Disease Control published an advisory on its website recommending that events of 50 people or more be cancelled or postponed for the next eight weeks throughout the United States.

In a sign of the times, the candidates, both septuagenarians at greater risk, bumped elbows instead of shaking hands when they stepped on stage, where their podiums were arranged noticeably far apart in accordance with guidelines for social distancing.

The candidates stood far apart at the debate. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

The debate itself was relocated from a convention center in Phoenix to a television studio in Washington to limit unnecessary travel and exposure. There was no live audience, press filing center or spin room. And ahead of the event, the Univision anchor Jorge Ramos, a moderator who may have been exposed to the virus, bowed out as a precautionary measure.

The race has changed dramatically since the Democrats’ last debate, before the South Carolina primary three weeks ago, when Sanders was winning early contests as Biden’s campaign verged on collapse. In a sharp reversal of fortunes, Biden stepped on to the debate stage on Sunday night as the frontrunner while Sanders fought for the future of his candidacy, just days ahead of four more primary votes.

Related: How Bernie Sanders went from frontrunner to the last-chance saloon

After rebounding in remarkable fashion, Biden now leads Sanders by roughly 150 delegates following a second consecutive week of commanding primary victories. A strong showing on Tuesday – when Illinois, Ohio, Arizona and Florida will go to the polls to vote for their preferred candidates – could all but guarantee Biden’s ascent to the nomination to face Trump in the November election.

Throughout the evening, Biden kept his sights set on the general election, even as he clashed with Sanders on a number of policy issues, including social security, gun control, climate change, abortion rights and immigration.

At one point, Biden committed to selecting a woman to be his running mate if he becomes the Democratic nominee and re-committed to nominating a black woman to the supreme court if elected president. Sanders said he would also choose a woman “in all likelihood” as his pick for vice-president, but said his priority is finding a lieutenant who supports his progressive values.

“For me it’s not just about nominating a woman. It’s about making sure that we have a progressive woman,” Sanders said, adding wryly: “There are progressive women out there.”

Ahead of the debate, Biden extended an olive branch to the party’s left wing, adopting a bankruptcy reform plan introduced by his former rival Elizabeth Warren and expanding his higher education platform to move closer to Sanders’ proposal to eliminate college tuition at all two- and four-year public colleges for students regardless of income. In a statement, Sanders said the plan did not go far enough.

The candidates sought to strike a delicate balance between debating the issues and addressing the urgent health crisis. Sanders confronted Biden over his positions on healthcare and climate change, among other issues. In one tense exchange, Sanders said Biden’s climate plan fell short.

“All well and good, but not nearly enough,” the Vermont senator said, later accusing Biden of “missing the point”. Sanders is a proponent of the Green New Deal, a sweeping proposal that calls for aggressive action to combat climate change.

The pandemic has reshaped the way the candidates campaign for the nomination, forcing Biden and Sanders to cancel rallies, suspend field operations and hold virtual campaign events. The candidates said they were taking extra precautions to protect themselves from becoming infected, emphasizing that they were in good health and had not displayed any of the underlying symptoms.

“I’m not shaking hands,” Sanders said, noting that he held a “fireside chat” from his home in Burlington on Sunday instead of a rally.

Biden added: “I wash my hands God knows how many times a day.”