Mr. Biden, who remains ahead in national and key battleground polling, framed Mr. Trump as a divisive leader who has failed to guide the country through the coronavirus pandemic. The president, who interrupted his opponent much less than during their first debate (partly because of new debate rules), denounced Mr. Biden’s international and domestic record.
Here are four standout moments from Mr. Biden during the debate, which was held at Belmont University in Nashville.
An image of missing loved ones at the dinner table.
The first question of the debate went to Mr. Trump, asking about his handling of the pandemic. The president, invoking his own diagnosis with the virus and seeking to turn the page away from the topic, said that Americans were “learning to live with” the outbreak and that the “country can’t lock ourselves up in a basement like Joe does.”
Mr. Biden used the moment to do something the president has not: acknowledge the hundreds of thousands in the country who have lost loved ones to the virus. He shot back that Americans are “learning to die with” the virus, and highlighted how families are missing loved ones at the dinner table or in their bedrooms.
The words served a dual political purpose. Mr. Biden wants to center this election on Mr. Trump’s pandemic response, which has earned low marks from both voters and health experts. Mr. Biden has also fashioned himself as a comforter in chief, using moments of grief to highlight his history of family tragedy and connect with voters on a human level.
Attacked by Trump over his son, Biden says, ‘It’s not about his family and my family, it’s about your family.’
Throughout the week, Mr. Trump’s allies had made clear he intended to attack Mr. Biden over his son’s business dealings, including those in China. Conservative news outlets have zeroed in on that angle as Election Day nears, hoping to cast Mr. Biden and his family as nefarious characters who profited off his political position.
Mr. Biden was ready for the attacks with a two-pronged offensive strategy to throw the onus back on Mr. Trump.
First, he referred to a recent New York Times report showing that Mr. Trump had a previously undisclosed bank account in China, though many other details remain unclear. This allowed Mr. Biden to push back on the notion that he was soft on China in the name of his son, and force the president to answer for various business dealings that he has not clarified to the American people.
Mr. Biden also had a line that seemed to come from debate preparation: “It’s not about his family and my family, it’s about your family. And your family’s hurting badly. If you’re a middle-class family, you’re getting hurt badly right now.”
Mr. Trump immediately mocked him for sounding like a “politician,” but the moment spoke to Mr. Biden’s clear intention to pitch unity against divisiveness. For a long time, American politicians’ children were considered off-limits in attacks from rival candidates. Mr. Biden was speaking to voters who may be uncomfortable with this new political world.
Who built the cages?
In the Democratic presidential primary, Mr. Biden’s challengers sometimes sought to hit him over President Barack Obama’s handling of immigration. Throughout Mr. Obama’s tenure, when Mr. Biden was vice president, liberal groups criticized the administration over its strict border enforcement and high numbers of deportations.
And as Mr. Trump has defended his controversial child separation policy, he has tried to insulate himself by saying that Mr. Obama made the cages that housed the children taken away from their parents by the Trump administration.
During the immigration section of the debate on Thursday, Mr. Trump repeatedly asked Mr. Biden, “Who built the cages?” Mr. Biden did not respond directly, choosing to focus on the president’s words and actions in the last year.
When asked why he would be different if elected, Mr. Biden said he would be president and not vice president, a remark some observers saw as his creating distance between himself and Mr. Obama in a way he rarely does.
The exchange highlighted how Democrats are more comfortable criticizing Mr. Trump on immigration as an issue than they are in arguing for their own vision for border policy. It also pointed to what could be another fault line if Mr. Biden is elected, and he comes under significant pressure from the progressive wing of his party to show a different attitude toward immigration from that of the Obama-Biden administration.
‘Blue states or red states — they’re all the United States.’
Mr. Trump has, even as president, positioned himself in opposition to Democratic-controlled cities and states. In contrast, during the debate and on social media, Mr. Biden has highlighted his willingness to be a president to all Americans, and he has made it a central part of his closing argument in the race.
At the debate, Mr. Trump said he opposed a coronavirus relief bill passed by House Democrats in part because it gave significant money to Democratic-led cities. Mr. Biden used the chance to highlight his message of unity, which his campaign has pushed in advertisements in the campaign’s final days.
“Look what he’s doing,” Mr. Biden said. “Blue states or red states — they’re all the United States.”
He returned to that theme several times through the evening. Earlier in the day, Mr. Biden had also tweeted: “I’m running as a proud Democrat, but I will govern as an American president. I will represent you — whether you vote for me or against me.”
Mr. Biden’s campaign believes the message is authentic to his history as a bipartisan legislator and an effective olive branch to independents and swing voters who may be considering voting for him. In political terms, operatives call the tactic creating a “permission structure” that tells people who are considering backing a candidate that their interest, and vote, are welcomed.