Vice President Mike Pence debates Kamala Harris (Image: AAP/Justin Sullivan)

Vice President Mike Pence and Democrat vice presidential hopeful Kamala Harris provided a low-key but civil vice presidential debate in Utah today, with proceedings markedly different from the chaos of the first 2020 Biden-Trump debate — though the moderator was still put to the test.

With Mike Pence complimentary toward Harris and few interjections from either candidate, the 90-minute exchange proceeded without acrimony through topics like the pandemic, the vice presidential role, climate, China, the Supreme Court, Black Lives Matter and the election itself.

The main challenge for moderator Susan Page — who was probably the only loser from the debate — was cutting off Pence, who repeatedly went over his allotted two minutes, thereby dominating the debate in terms of speaking time.

Both candidates appeared to do their best to avoid answering the questions set by Page, sometimes barely even acknowledging the substance of what they were asked in favour of hammering talking points. Asked about Biden’s plan for the pandemic, Harris — seemingly nervous and underwhelming, but effective in hitting her talking points — spent twenty seconds listing testing and tracing before hammering Trump’s response and lack of candour with Americans about the severity of the disease.

The evasion grew absurd at times: when asked if they had a plan for dealing with illness or incapacity in their elderly presidential candidates, both Harris and Pence — always urbane and unflustered — pointedly refused to engage, with Harris instead talking about how her mother would be proud of her and how wonderful Joe Biden was.

A question on the lack of candour by both candidates on their health was turned by Harris into a discussion of Trump’s taxes. A question on climate science was used by Pence to instead talk about Biden’s position on fracking, taxation and the “green new deal”.

Pence tried to use the foreign policy question about the decline of US global standing (Harris: “it’s about relationships”) to talk about Trump’s record on terrorism, offering a very traditional defence of a president who has made a virtue of avoiding foreign military interventions.

The Black Lives Matter question ran as expected, with Pence quickly turning the issue to law and order. Harris, however — reflecting one of the key reasons Biden selected her — immediately fired back by citing her own prosecutorial record. Pence was forced to resort to a favoured talking point of Trump supporters, that Harris was implacably hostile to Black Americans when a prosecutor in California’s criminal justice system.

For the campaign of a president who just last week was again embracing white supremacists, it’s unlikely to be a compelling argument to lift the republicans’ Black vote.

With proceedings living up to the great debate cliché “no killer blows were landed”, and enlivened only by a fly spending an extended period on the vice presidential hairdo and some repeated sneezing from off-stage, one might even feel just a tinge of nostalgia for mayhem, abuse and shouting of the Trump-Biden clash — the next instalment of which is next week.