Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders meet for first one-on-one debate as nation faces coronavirus crisis

The podiums for the CNN/Univision Democratic debate with Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are six feet apart, per CDC recommendations. The debate will take place at CNN’s DC bureau without a studio audience. Oliver Darcy says it’s important “to see national leaders taking the same precautions that they’re urging everyone else to.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders meet for their first one-on-one debate on Sunday at an extraordinary time in a nation where nerves are running high as Americans hunker down at home in an effort to slow the spread of novel coronavirus.

The CNN debate, which was initially scheduled to take place in Arizona, will be held at 8 p.m. ET in the network’s bureau in Washington, D.C. with no audience. It comes at a pivotal point in the race — following Biden’s surge in the delegate count over two Super Tuesday contests — as both candidates attempt to portray themselves as a capable potential commander-in-chief who could calmly steer the nation through crisis.

President Donald Trump has provided a convenient foil in that regard, constantly underplaying the gravity of the coronavirus crisis in recent weeks and overstating the government’s progress in distributing tests and getting a handle on the number of infected people in the United States.

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Trump falsely suggested during a White House press conference on Friday that Google was creating a website that would help connect concerned citizens to testing locations. In reality, the website was in the nascent stages of development from a subsidiary of Alphabet — Google’s parent company — that had merely planned a pilot program in San Francisco.

And in a mystifying development during the middle of a pandemic, the President returned to tweeting about the missing emails of his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, on Sunday.

For weeks now, Sanders and Biden have struggled to operate their campaigns in the shadow of the fast-moving virus as the number of cases in the United States has topped 3,300. The government’s calls for Americans to avoid large gatherings — and to adhere to “social distancing” guidelines keeping a space of six feet between individuals — led both men to cancel scheduled rallies.

The change has deprived Sanders of one of the most important aspects of his campaign: his ability to generate crowds, while Biden’s team struggled with technical issues during his first foray into the virtual event space on Friday. In that sense, the debate may offer a welcome change for both men as they try to drive their respective messages at a time when America is rightfully distracted.

Sanders held his first live-streamed fireside chat on Saturday evening with some 100,000 viewers tuning in, according to the campaign, offering his analysis of the coronavirus aid package passed by Congress: he called for greater protections for workers in the form of unemployment benefits and paid leave. He also attempted to pivot back to a discussion of his ideological differences with the former vice president.

“Joe has been part of the establishment for a very long time,” Sanders said, previewing the questions he plans to pose against Biden. “Joe, what role have you played in trying to make sure we end this massive level of income and wealth inequality where three people own more wealth than the bottom half of America? Now, to me, that is obscene.”

Though Sanders called Biden a friend who is “a very decent person,” he alluded to the slow start of Biden’s campaign, questioning whether he could marshal the energy and excitement within the Democratic Party to defeat “the most dangerous President in modern American history.”

Biden, by contrast, has tried to turn his focus to the contrast between his experience and Trump’s actions. In an op-ed for CNN that published on Sunday, Biden argued that the virus “has laid bare the severe shortcomings of the current administration.”

“Public fears are being compounded by a pervasive lack of trust in this President, fueled by his adversarial relationship with the truth,” Biden said, touting the plan he has outlined to fight the coronavirus. “No President can promise to prevent future outbreaks. But I can promise you that when I’m president, we will prepare better, respond better, and recover better. We will lead with science, listen to experts, and heed their advice. We will rebuild American leadership and rally the world to meet global threats. And I will always, always tell the truth.”

In an attempt to smooth his path to the Democratic nomination, Biden has also been pushing a message of party unity by suggesting he and Sanders can find areas of common ground and reaching out to supporters of both Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

On Friday, he announced that he was endorsing Warren’s bankruptcy proposal, stating it was “one of the things that I think Bernie and I will agree on.” His aides said Sunday that he will also support free college tuition for students whose families make less than $125,000 a year.