Both Kamala Harris and Mike Pence avoided directly answering questions but Pence was far more obvious in the brazenness with which he would avoid doing so. When asked a question that he could not or did not want to answer, he would start by saying that he wanted to first go back to an earlier issue and then use his time to filibuster on that issue. For example, when asked what the Trump ‘health care plan’ (that they keep saying they have but have never presented, which means they do not have one) would do about people with pre-existing conditions, he did that maneuver and asked Harris about packing the Supreme Court. The moderator did not press him to answer and neither did Harris when it was her turn to respond, though on occasion he pressed her to answer a question that she wanted to avoid.
When Pence was asked why the US per capita death toll due to the pandemic is higher than in any other developed country, he did not answer but said that ban on travel from China (it was not a ban as has been pointed out many times since it allowed many categories of people in) saved many lives. When asked why he and Trump lied about the danger posed by the virus when they knew better and could have saved lives by telling people the truth and thus enabled them to take better precautions, he indulged in some shameless pandering about the great sacrifices made by the American people. What was not pointed out was that people were not sacrificing, they were being sacrificed by Trump and Pence in order to further their bogus narrative that things were just fine.
Pence accused Harris and Biden of undermining trust in any coronavirus vaccine that might be developed but Harris gave a strong and unequivocal answer, that if the medical and science experts recommend taking it, she would be first in line, but if it was just Trump promoting it, she would not. I definitely agree with that.
On two occasions, Pence trotted out the cliche to say that Harris had the right to her opinions but not to her own facts. Given that both Trump and Pence are serial pathological liars, this was the height of audacity.
There were several occasions where I think that Harris had openings to hammer Pence but she refrained. I doubt that it was because she did not recognize those moments or was unable to think of what to say because she has a sharp intellect. I got the feeling that she was holding back because as a woman, and especially a black woman, you can so easily be labeled as ‘angry’ just for saying the kinds of things that white men are praised for. Since she and Biden have a lead in the polls, she was probably advised to not take the risk of having a moment that could be taken out of context showing her as angry. So she never looked fluster or annoyed. She just smiled a lot. It was not as satisfying (to me at least) as seeing her take a rhetorical cleaver to Pence, but it may have been a wise move. She did on a couple of occasions firmly tell him “I’m speaking, I’m speaking” when he interrupted her answer but it was more with the tone of a parent dealing with an obstreperous child. Watch.
[Update: Harris was still criticized by the right wing media echo chamber as being unlikable and Trump even called her a ‘monster’!]
Not having opening or closing statements or a large live audience is a good thing. The big weakness is the moderator who once again was ineffective. The moderator must insist on stopping speakers filibustering and keep coming back to the original question that was asked and demand an answer. Otherwise what is the point of asking questions? Why cannot the moderator point out to the speaker that they have not answered the question but are avoiding it? That may give the impression of editorializing or taking sides (especially if one person is avoiding more than the other) but would be a statement of fact. If that is done a couple of times, speakers might realize that it looks bad and at least make an effort to answer. The moderator is not running for office and there is no downside to being assertive.
I doubt that any minds were changed by last night’s debate, unlike in the case of the Trump-Biden debate where Trump clearly lost it. But since Pence needed a clear win to reverse their sinking fortunes and did not get it, that means that Harris wins by default.