WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders blasted President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus outbreak during Sunday's Democratic debate, and offered competing visions for how they would lead in a time of crisis that has upended the daily lives of Americans.
In their first one-on-one debate, the two Democratic contenders to face Trump in the November election clashed on the proper response to the pandemic and other pressing issues, with the centrist Biden arguing he would focus on results, while the progressive Sanders pushed for bigger, more fundamental changes.
Biden, who has become a clear front-runner in the Democratic race after a series of sweeping primary wins in the past two weeks, committed for the first time to pick a woman as his running mate if he is the Democratic nominee.
"If I’m elected president, my Cabinet, my administration, will look like the country, and I commit that I will in fact appoint and pick a woman as vice president," Biden said, prompting Sanders to say he would "in all likelihood" pick a woman too.
The debate came two days before Tuesday's nominating contests in the big states of Ohio, Illinois, Florida and Arizona, where another string of Biden victories would give him a nearly unassailable lead in delegates over Sanders.
The four states have said the primaries would go ahead as scheduled despite the rapidly spreading virus, which has shut down schools, restaurants and large gatherings across the country. Georgia and Louisiana have postponed later primaries by weeks.
After the debate, Sanders questioned the wisdom of holding the primaries after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Sunday recommended events with gatherings of 50 or more people be postponed or cancelled over the next eight weeks.
"I would hope that governors listen to the public health experts," Sanders said in an interview with CNN. "I’m thinking about some of the elderly people who are sitting behind the desks, registering people, doing all that stuff. Does that make a lot of sense? Not sure that it does."
U.S. officials have recorded nearly 3,000 cases and 65 deaths in the outbreak, up from 58 on Saturday. Globally, more than 162,000 are infected and more than 6,000 have died.
In a debate overshadowed by the deepening health crisis, both candidates accused Trump of contributing to growing worries by spending weeks minimizing the threat before declaring a national emergency on Friday.
"The first thing we have to do, whether or not I am president, is to shut this president up right now," Sanders said. "He is undermining the doctors and scientists who are trying to help the American people."
But the two disagreed sharply over how they would handle the crisis as president, and bickered repeatedly over their records on a range of issues from climate change to healthcare, dampening hopes the debate would be a first step to party unity ahead of the Nov. 3 election against Trump.
"People are looking for results, not a revolution," Biden said, taking a shot at Sanders' promises to lead a political revolution to sweep in his anti-corporate economic agenda.
"We have problems we have to solve now. What's a revolution going to do, disrupt everything in the meantime?"
Sanders, a democratic socialist senator from Vermont, said Biden's ideas were not ambitious enough, and touted his long-standing support for sweeping economic and social reforms.
In the past two days, Biden's campaign courted the progressive supporters of Sanders and liberal Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who dropped her White House bid earlier this month but has not endorsed anyone.
Biden promised to back a Sanders plan to make public colleges tuition-free to families with incomes of less than $125,000 a year.
"I'm glad that Joe is on board. But what leadership is about is going forward when it's not popular, when it's an idea that you get criticized for," Sanders said.
'LIKE A WAR'
The debate, originally scheduled for Phoenix, took place in a Washington studio with no audience, a move made to limit possible exposure to the virus - a sign of how deeply the campaign routine has been reshaped by the global pandemic.
When the two candidates took the stage, they smiled and shared an elbow bump - abiding by the advice of public health officials to avoid handshakes.
Biden recounted his experience as vice president in President Barack Obama's administration in dealing with the Ebola outbreak in 2014.
He laid out a coronavirus plan to make testing free and widely available, establish mobile sites and drive-through facilities in each state and provide more help for small businesses hurt by the resulting economic slowdown.
He said he was willing to call out the military to help local officials build hospitals and take other necessary relief steps.
"This is like a war, and in a war you do whatever needs to be done to take care of your people," Biden said.
Sanders also deplored Trump's approach to the coronavirus, but quickly pivoted to say the crisis showed the need for a healthcare overhaul, like his Medicare for All proposal that would create a government-run system in place of private insurance.
"Let's be honest and understand that this coronavirus pandemic exposes the incredible weakness and dysfunctionality of our current healthcare system," he said.
Biden has opposed the Medicare for All plan, saying it is too costly and he prefers to build on the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, by adding a public option for those who want it.
Biden, 77, and Sanders, 78, have been forced to cancel public events and step off the campaign trail during the crisis. They said they were avoiding crowds, washing hands and having their campaign staffs work from home.
Despite a long, bitter exchange over past votes and positions, both promised to support the eventual nominee.
“If Bernie’s the nominee, I will not only support him, I will campaign for him. ... We fundamentally disagree with the president on everything,” Biden said.
(Reporting by John Whitesides and Simon Lewis; Additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in New York and Amanda Becker in Washington; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Peter Cooney)
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