NBC News (WASHINGTON) — The mics were off but the gloves mostly stayed on.
The final debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden was a departure from the rancorous first clash in Cleveland. Instead, the two presidential hopefuls sparred on federal Covid-19, health care, immigration policy and race.
With polls showing Biden holding a sizeable national lead — with Election Day just two weeks away and over 42 million ballots already cast — Trump delivered no obvious knockout blows and the Democrat appeared to clear his final major hurdle with no major stumble.
Moderator Kristen Welker — aided by a new rule that muted candidates microphones while their opponent delivered their initial response to questions — directed the two men through a fast-paced debate.
Trump, who has struggled to settle on a single message against his rival, set aside the "Trojan horse for the radical left" theme from the first debate to instead hammer Biden as an ineffective Washington insider who is "all talk" with nothing to show for his 47 years in public life. He called Biden a "corrupt politician" and dismissed his answers as pandering.
Biden criticized Trump as a heartless and inept racist who botched the Covid-19 pandemic and locked immigrant children in cages. He painted Trump as incompetent and dishonest.
"220,000 deaths. If you hear nothing else I say tonight, hear this,” Biden said in the opening minutes of the debate. "Anyone who is responsible for that many deaths should not remain as President of the United States."
Trump said his administration beat projections that forecasted as many as two million people could have died from the pandemic and noted that other parts of the world have struggled to contain the virus too as cases spike in Europe, promising that a vaccine is now just "weeks" away.
"We're learning to live with it," Trump said, "We can't close up our nation ... or you're not going to have a nation."
On what voters tell pollsters is the single most important issue in the election, Trump argued Biden would lock down the country and push struggling bars and restaurants out of business while leaving children and parents stranded with closed schools.
"Learning to live with it? Come on," Biden fired back. "We're dying from it."
The clash included personal jabs — Trump hit Biden for "hiding" in his basement and Biden knocked Trump for golfing instead of negotiating a relief package with Congress — but was a more low-key pitch than their first matchup.
Biden offered perhaps his sharpest ever criticism of former President Barack Obama, veiled as it was, saying their administration made a "mistake" on immigration by cracking down before reversing course.
"We made a mistake. It took too long to get it right," Biden said. "I’ll be president of the United States, not vice president of the United States.”
It was the first of two times Biden said he had made a "mistake" in his long career, later saying he would try to undo some parts of a landmark 1994 crime bill he helped pass.
Trump said that was an empty promise. "He had eight years as vice president and he didn't do anything," Trump said.
Trump insisted he had done more in his four years for African-Americans than any president since Abraham Lincoln, who ended slavery in the U.S., citing a criminal justice reform law and low black unemployment before the pandemic.
Biden scoffed at that brag, calling Trump, "one of the most racist presidents in American history," the former vice president said.
Trump did not wait long to brandish the weapon his campaign and allies in conservative media had been loading in the run-up to the debate: unsubstantiated allegations that Biden is part of corrupt business dealings from his son, Hunter.
"He was vice president of the United States and his son, his brother and his other brother were getting rich," Trump said. "They’re like a vacuum cleaner sucking up money from foreign governments."
But the president also did not dwell on Hunter Biden and his "laptop from hell," mentioning it on only a few fleeting occasions afterward, despite Trump allies teeing up what they promised to be a campaign-altering attack.
Biden called the charges against his only living son "malarky," noting he has released years of tax returns proving he wasn't profiting, while Trump has not released his tax documents, and pointing to a recent report that the president had a secret bank account in China.
"I have not taken a penny from any foreign source in my life," Biden replied. "The guy who got in trouble in Ukraine was this guy — trying to bribe the Ukrainian government to say something negative about me, which they would not do and did not do because it never, ever, ever happened ... The only guy that made money from China is this guy."
When the debate turned to foreign policy — the issue Trump said he was most eager to discuss heading into the debate — the president argued Biden would be soft on China and said it was good for American interests to have a leader with personal relationships with even unsavory foreign leaders.
Trump said his negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un led got results on a nuclear program and said the strongman "didn't like Obama," which prevented diplomacy.
"That's like saying we had a good relationship with Hitler before he in fact invaded Europe," Biden fired back. "Come on!"