SALT LAKE CITY — Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris said during a vice presidential debate Wednesday that President Donald Trump’s administration “has forfeited their right to reelection” based on the administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” Harris, who is running alongside former Vice President Joe Biden, said at Wednesday evening’s debate, which was held at Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah. It was the only vice presidential debate of the campaign.

Harris, a Democratic U.S. senator from California, pointed to the U.S. coronavirus death count, which topped 210,000 on Tuesday, as evidence of the administration’s failures, as well as a report from renowned journalist Bob Woodward that the administration was warned about the severity of COVID-19 in January, months before any restrictions were implemented.

“And they knew what was happening and they didn’t tell you,” said Harris, looking into the camera. “Can you imagine if you knew on Jan. 28, as opposed to March 13, what they knew, what you might have done to prepare? They knew and they covered it up. The president said it was a hoax. They minimized the seriousness of it.”

Vice President Mike Pence defended the administration’s response and praised the president for temporarily suspending travel from China taking the “unprecedented step” of shutting down the economy in March.

“There’s not a day gone by that I haven’t thought of every American family that’s lost a loved one,” said Pence.

Pence added that Biden and Harris’ coronavirus response plan, which includes increasing contact tracing and continuing to develop a vaccine treatment, “reads an awful lot like what President Trump and I and our task force have been doing every step of the way.”

“It looks a little bit like plagiarism,” the vice president said.

The debate, which was moderated by USA Today Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page, lasted 90 minutes and covered topics ranging from climate change to foreign policy to health care to the economy.

When asked whether he agreed with climate experts that human-caused climate change has made wildfires and hurricanes more deadly, Pence said he was “very proud” of the administration’s record on conservation.”

“The climate is changing,” he said. “The issue is, what’s the cause? And what do we do about it? President Trump has made it clear that we will continue to listen to the science.”

“We have seen a pattern with this administration, which is they don’t believe in science,” Harris shot back.

Pence accused Harris and her running mate of wanting to ban fossil fuels and fracking and said the Democratic Green New Deal would “literally crush American jobs.”

Harris said Biden has been clear that he would not ban fracking but added that the former vice president “understands that the west coast is burning” and would work to create renewable energy jobs.

When asked about the upcoming nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s pick to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, Pence said he hoped “that Berrett will be nominated respectfully” when the hearing takes place.

Pence said he didn’t know which way Barrett would vote on Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court ruling determining that women have the right to an abortion, but noted that he would “continue to stand strong for the right to life.”

On the subject of police and criminal justice reform, Harris, a former prosecutor, said the Biden administration would ban chokeholds and implement a national registry for police officers who break the law, in addition to decriminalizing marijuana and expunging the records of those who have been convicted for marijuana possession.

Pence said he had faith in the criminal justice system and condemned violent protests against law enforcement.

The debate took place less than a week after President Donald Trump tested positive for COVID-19 following a Rose Garden ceremony on Sept. 26, which Pence attended.

Since then, several key White House figures, including White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany and top aide Stephen Miller, have tested positive for the virus.

Pence said there has been “a great deal of speculation” about the event but noted that many attendees were tested ahead of time and that “it was an outdoor event, which all of our scientists regularly and routinely advise.”

The candidates were physically separated during the debate by clear plexiglass shields that Harris’ campaign requested.

The vice president initially argued that the plexiglass barriers were unnecessary but eventually agreed to use them, Politico reported.

Pence’s guests for the vice presidential debate included Gov. Gary Herbert, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, according to Fox 13.

A few Utah Democrats were invited by the Harris campaign to attend the debate, including state Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City and Deborah Gatrell, a teacher at Hunter High School and candidate for the Salt Lake County Council.

“Senator Harris’s debate night guests represent the people she and Joe Biden will fight for in a Biden-Harris Administration,” the campaign said in a press release, “and they both showcase the resolve hard-working Americans have shown as Donald Trump has failed to control the virus and save the economy.”

The debate had a noticeably different dynamic to the one between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden that took place on Sept. 29, which was overrun with insults and interruptions from both presidential candidates.

Still, there were tense moments in the debate, with Harris repeatedly asking the vice president to quit interrupting her.

Hundreds of protesters crowded the street adjacent to Kingsbury Hall in the hours leading up to the debate. Pence supporters waved “Trump 2020” and “Don’t tread on me” flags while Harris supporters held signs reading slogans like “Grab him by the ballot” and “Pence hates puppies.”

University of Utah President Ruth Watkins spoke ahead of the debate and noted that such an event has never taken place in the state.

“This is the first time that Utah has been the site of an election debate, and we are thrilled that so many people will get to know our state and our university through this occasion,” Watkins said.

The final question of the night was asked by an 8th grade student from Springville asking for an explanation for many of the political divisions seen in the United States.

The second presidential debate between Trump and Biden will take place in Miami on Oct. 15.

Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at crichards@heraldextra.com and 801-344-2599.

See what people are talking about at The Community Table!