Thursday night's debate was one of the last chances Republican President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, had to appeal to a large nationwide audience. Both men seemed to be aware of how much was at stake.
Trump acted significantly more presidential than he had in recent memory, staying calm and using familiar arguments to attack Biden's record when it was his, Trump's, turn to speak — more on that in a bit. And Biden, who Trump and his supporters refer to as Sleepy Joe, was very much awake, passionately arguing against the incumbent's policies in areas like immigration and the handling of the coronavirus crisis.
This round of verbal sparring was quite a change of pace from the chaos that the first debate between the two candidates had been.
"It was definitely better than the last one," J. Miles Coleman, election analyst with the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told DW. "Trump was more message-focused and there were no fights with the moderator."
That marked a big difference from the last go-around.
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Rule changes after the last debate
During the first debate on September 29, Trump constantly interrupted Biden, who picked up the habit as well, though not quite as bad. According to a tally by The Washington Post, Trump heatedly interrupted the moderator or Biden 71 times during the first debate, while Biden interrupted 22 times.
As a consequence, in the final debate each candidate had their mic muted during the initial 2-minute answer of his opponent in each of the six segments. Frank Fahrenkopf, the chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, told The Associated Press that both the Trump and the Biden campaign had a member backstage who monitored the person controlling the mute button.
Trump had made it clear in advance he wasn't happy about the rule changes.
"President Trump is committed to debating Joe Biden regardless of last-minute rule changes from the biased commission in their latest attempt to provide advantage to their favored candidate," a statement from the president's reelection campaign read.
During the debate, Trump seemed to not have an issue with moderator Kristen Welker, though — on the contrary.
"So far, I respect very much the way you're handling this," the president told Welker at one point during the debate when she let him respond to an argument Biden had made. Before Thursday night, he had repeatedly attacked the NBC News correspondent.
'Learning to die with it'
Biden started the debate out strong. The first topic of discussion was the coronavirus and the former vice president harshly criticized Trump for what he and his party view as a bungled response to the pandemic. So far, more than 220,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the US.
"Anyone who is responsible for that many deaths should not remain president of the United States of America," Biden said.
His big moment came when Trump said Americans were "learning to live with" the coronavirus since they had no choice.
"He says, 'We're learning to live with it.' People are learning to die with it," Biden shot back.
Election analyst Coleman said: "That was Biden's best line."
Heated exchange over children at border
The Democratic challenger got fired up again when the discussion turned to immigration. He attacked the president for his policy on separating migrant children from their parents at the border with Mexico — and was visibly worked up over how more than 500 children are still waiting to be reunited with their families.
"Biden is big on the sentiment that character is on the ballot in these elections," Coleman said.
The family separation policy, which the Trump administration eventually stopped, was criticized as unconscionable.
But the immigration segment of the debate took a turn after a strong start for Biden. Trump, avoiding the issue of the children still missing their parents, pointed out that some of the detention facilities, often described as cages, were in fact built during the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president. "That was him. They built cages," said Trump.
For Coleman, he said, "It would have been better if Biden had had a response."
In the end, the president came out looking somewhat stronger than his challenger.
"Trump won, in the sense that [his debate performance] wasn't a debacle," said Coleman, who is also the associate editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, a non-partisan election campaign newsletter. "We have set the bar so low. Now is it going to change a lot of minds? I don't know."
For a significant number of voters, the debate came too late to sway them, anyway: More than 42 million Americans have already cast their ballots, a record turnout for early voting.