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

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Biden and Sanders confront coronavirus crisis in first one-on-one debateDemocrats face off in TV studio without audience, standing far apart and bumping elbows instead of shaking hands * Debate: follow live updatesJoe 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 over the coronavirus dominated the discussion between two candidates with starkly different visions for the country.“This is bigger than any one of us,” Biden says. “This calls for a national rallying for one another.”Both candidates were sharply critical of Donald Trump’s ability to lead the nation through this crisis. As of Sunday night, the US had 3,244 confirmed coronavirus cases, with 62 reported deaths, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University.“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. It is unacceptable for him to be blathering unfactual information, which is confusing the general public.”The two-hour primetime 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 higher risk of getting sick from this virus, bumped elbows instead of shaking hands and their podiums were arranged noticeably far apart.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.Biden and Sanders both said they would deploy the US military to help confront the coronavirus crisis, a step Trump has not yet taken but that senior administration officials have said is on the table.“This is like a war,” Biden said. “And in a war, you do whatever is needed to be done to take care of your people.”Sanders used the crisis and warnings about how the shortcomings in the American healthcare system will affect the nation’s response to highlight his signature policy issue, Medicare for All.“One of the reasons that we are unprepared, and have been unprepared, is we don’t have a system. We’ve got thousands of private insurance plans,” Sanders said. “That is not a system that is prepared to provide health care to all people in a good year, without the epidemic.”Biden said a single-payer healthcare system is not the solution, pointing to Italy, where the outbreak has overwhelmed the country’s national health services.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.After rebounding in remarkable fashion, Biden now leads Sanders by roughly 150 delegates after 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 candidate – could all but guarantee Biden’s ascent to the nomination to face Trump in the November election.Throughout the evening, Biden kept his sight 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 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 – both of whom are in their 70s – said they are taking extra precautions to guard against the virus, emphasizing that they are 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.”

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