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Vaccines, dead birds and empty chairs: key moments in the presidential debate

What a difference a debate makes. The second and final US presidential bout between Donald Trump and Joe Biden had the candidates talking about the coronavirus response, North Korea and actual policy.

Moderator Kristen Welker and her mute button strong-armed US President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden into conducting a proper debate.

Thursday's debate in Nashville, Tennessee, was supposed to be the third face-off in 2020, but it was instead the second and final debate after Trump declined to participate in one scheduled last week after it was moved to a virtual format following his COVID-19 diagnosis.

These are the biggest take-aways from the 90 minute debate:

Trump and Biden

Trump and BidenCredit:AP

1. We have a vaccine that's coming, it's ready.
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Trump announces up front of the debate that a vaccine is going to be announced within weeks, and it's going to be delivered through Operation Warp Speed with the US military organising and distributing 100 million vials of the vaccine. When the moderator Kristen Welker raised his own officials saying that a vaccine would take well into 2021 at the earliest, Trump shrugged his shoulders and said he thinks his "own timetable will be more accurate".

2. Empty chair at the kitchen table

Biden had a major moment after Trump said the United States was learning to live with the pandemic. He warned of a "dark winter". Then he said: "People are learning to die with you".

The former vice-president then looked down the camera and continued: "Folks will have an empty chair at the kitchen table this morning. That man or wife going to bed tonight reaching over to try to touch their wife or husband who is gone.

"Learning to live with it ... Come on."

3. Moderator Kristen Welker rocks, Trump is respectful

In order to enforce the debate's rule, the Commission on Presidential Debates resorted to something familiar to a country operating by video conferences: The mute button.

Welker kept order in the house and the public got to hear from both candidates across the topics "Fighting COVID-19," "American Families," "Race in America," "Climate Change," "National Security" and "Leadership".

She had to use the mute button only once.

Trump compliments Welker on doing a good job.

Trump and Biden on the debate stage.

Trump and Biden on the debate stage.Credit:Reuters

3. So, I called my accountants

It's the great tax return mystery.

For years the US President has promised the American public would see his tax returns soon. When asked about his much discussed tax returns, Trump goes all Blues Brothers when John Belushi tells Carrie Fisher in the movie why he didn't turn up to marry her: "There was an earthquake, a terrible flood, locusts. It wasn't my fault! I swear to God!"

When asked about his much promised tax return. Trump says: "So, I called my accountants."

"I'm going to release them as soon as we can. I want to do it, and it will show how successful, how great this company is.

"I asked them a week ago. I said, What did I pay, they should show you I pre-paid tens of millions of dollars I've pre-paid my tax....

"...I get treated very badly by the IRS very unfairly, but we had a deal done as soon as we're completed with the data, I want to release it, but I have paid millions and millions of dollars."

4. Then there was Hitler

Trump boasted about his success over North Korea. However, Biden rejected anything has been achieved, calling him out for cosying up to North Korea Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, whom he calls a "thug".

“Having a good relationship with leaders of other countries is a good thing," Trump said.

"We had a good relationship with Hitler before he in fact invaded Europe," Biden retorted.

5. Return of the outsider

Trump went back to channelling his 2016 line of attack, chiding Biden repeatedly for being a career politician. During one particularly laboured, folksy response from Biden in response to a question about China, Trump seized the opportunity."Just a typical politician when I see that, that's why I got elected that last time," Trump said. Then he ridiculed Biden. "Let's get off the subject of China, let's talk about sitting around the table right. Come on, Joe, you could do better."

Joe Biden talked about the

Joe Biden talked about the "empty chairs" in people's homes because of the coronavirus. Credit:Kevin Dietsch

6. 'We should be talking about your families'

Trump spent a large part of the debate imploring the moderator and the public to look into the business dealings of the Biden family in the Ukraine and China, particularly the former vice president's son Hunter Biden.

In a bid to rattle the Democratic nominee, the Trump campaign announced just hours before the debate that a former Hunter Biden associate, Tony Bobulinski, would be one of the President’s guests at today’s event.

The move was reminiscent of a similar stunt Trump pulled in his debate against Hillary Clinton in 2016, when he entered with three women who’d accused Bill Clinton of inappropriate sexual behaviour.

The President has his own questions to answer about China after The New York Times published a damning article revealing details about the business pursuits of the Trump family in China - including a previously unknown bank account.

It set up an opportunity for Biden to deliver the debate line:

"It’s not about his family or my family… we should be talking about your families."

"I can't even see the audience because it is so dark but I don't care who was in the audience. I am the least racist person in this room," Donald Trump said. Credit:AP

7. Honest Abe

During an exchange about race in America, Trump said: "Nobody has done more for the black community than Donald Trump, with the exception of Abraham Lincoln — possible exception. ... I'm the least racist person in this room." Biden retorted sarcastically, referring to Trump: "Abraham Lincoln here is one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history."

8. Kill all the birds

The section covering climate change was among the most informative and divisive.

Biden's statement about increasing reliance on wind farms had Trump embarking on his dislike for them.

"We are energy independent, I know more about wind and you do, it's extremely expensive and kills all the birds," he says.

Biden responded that climate change is an immediate existential and moral crisis. He argued that heavily polluting industries including oil and gas will close over a transition period eventually.

Both candidates realise this is a big statement.

Trump shouts out to fossil fuel states like Texas, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma to remember this statement. Biden says high polluting industries will be replaced by renewables over time.

Trump Biden 2020

Our weekly newsletter will deliver expert analysis of the race to the White House from our US correspondent Matthew Knott. Coming soon. Sign up now for The Sydney Morning Herald's newsletter here, The Age's here, Brisbane Times' here and WAtoday's here. 

Heath Gilmore is the US Votes 2020 editor.

Farrah Tomazin is a senior journalist covering the 2020 US presidential election.

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