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Live from Belmont University: The final presidential debate

The final presidential debate before Election Day came to Belmont’s campus Thursday night – and ended with a discussion more civil than its fractious predecessor.

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden took the Curb Event Center stage to discuss COVID-19, race, climate change and more during the second presidential debate to take place on Belmont’s campus.

And with the second debate’s cancelation, this event served as the last opportunity for each candidate to make his case to the American people – only 12 days before Election Day.

This debate saw format changes following the chaotic first debate. For each topic, both candidates were given two minutes of uninterrupted speaking time during which the other candidate’s microphone was muted. The questions were punctuated by 15-minute periods of open discussion with both microphones unmuted.

Belmont students watching live were pleased by the change, with sophomore Courtney Cooper saying this debate was far more civil than the last.

“I feel that this debate is off to a better start than the last one because they are not cutting one another off,” Cooper said.

The event began with moderator and NBC White House correspondent Kristen Welker introducing the first topic: COVID-19.

Welker asked each candidate how their response to the virus would shape the coming years.

Trump said his administration was successful in reducing COVID-19 mortality rates, saying a vaccine was “ready” and to be announced “within weeks” – though he said it was not guaranteed when Welker asked him directly.

“More and more people are getting better,” Trump said. “We’re rounding a corner. It’s going away.” He reiterated his stance on keeping the U.S. economy open.

Biden responded by saying anyone responsible for as many deaths as COVID-19 has caused during Trump’s tenure should not be president of the United States.

“The president thus far still has no plan,” Biden said. “Folks, I will take care of this. I will end this.”

Biden said he would invest in rapid testing, encourage mask mandates and establish standards for safely reopening businesses and schools.

When Welker asked how Biden would inspire confidence in a COVID-19 vaccine, Biden said it would result from transparency, reiterating that Trump had “no plan.”

Trump responded by criticizing Biden’s response to the swine flu in 2009, saying 700,000 deaths would have resulted had swine flu been more lethal, and that COVID-19 could be overcome.

“I caught it, I learned a lot … and now I’ve recovered. 99.9% of young people recover. 99% of people recover. We have to recover,” Trump said. “We can’t close up our nation.”

Biden responded by reiterating how lethal the virus has been to Americans.

“People learn to die with it,” Biden said. “We’re about to lose 200,000 more people.”

Biden said that Trump’s approach to the pandemic was reckless, and that he supported scientist-recommended shutdowns – which Trump countered by saying the shutdowns were unnecessary and damaging to the national economy.

The candidates also discussed race, with both saying they would do as much as they could for Black and brown Americans.

Biden said institutional racism was a reality in America, and that a positive trend toward inclusion was disrupted by Trump’s presidency.

Trump responded by saying Biden has done nothing but harm to the Black community, and that he, Trump, was the “least racist person in this room.”

“He pours fuel on every single racist fire,” Biden countered.

Focus switched to criminal justice reform, with Trump saying Biden failed to enact any sort of reform as vice president, and Biden saying Trump’s approach to criminal justice would only jail more Americans – and that fundamental changes to the justice system were necessary.

Several times throughout the debate, Trump criticized Biden for inefficiency in carrying out his campaign promises as vice president. Biden countered by saying things would be different if he instead held the office of president, and that Trump had the assistance of a Republican Congress.

The debate closed with each candidate reiterating their stances.

The event drew national and international media to Belmont’s campus, as well as protestors who lined Wedgewood Avenue demonstrating their support for various issues.

Students who watched the debate live, whether from their homes or a watch party at the Music City Center, said the discussion was more civil than in the first debate, even if it was due, in part, to the format changes.

“They’re both more well-behaved, especially Trump, which I’m enjoying because I can actually process the information instead of watching a screaming match,” said junior Jack Wrightsman.

At the debate watch party at the Music City Center, freshmen who had been relocated to the Gaylord Opryland Hotel for safety reasons gathered around tables in front of two large screens.

During the debate, the students cheered and applauded at key points, even rising to a yell occasionally.

Students cheered when Biden said healthcare is not a privilege, but a right. When Trump said he was the least racist person in the room, there was an audible gasp and a few jeers.

“Trump had just said that he was the least racist president of all time. I just completely fell because I could not believe he would say that. It was just crazy to me,” said Emily Smith, a freshman attending the watch party.

Freshman and first-time voter Kourtney Ellis said the candidates’ rhetoric was intriguing, but frustrating.

“It’s so interesting how much straight-up lying they do. Literally admitting to not knowing facts and numbers, and then claiming he knows what’s going on,” said Ellis. “I would for sure love to fact-check much of what is being said.”

While Ellis said it seemed like Biden had a better handle on the issues, senior Samantha Schwieger said Trump excelled.

“I feel like Biden is doing better, he’s a lot more clear and concise,” said Ellis.

Schwieger disagreed.

“I do believe Donald Trump did better in the debate … I think it was a lot better seeing both of the candidates just give themselves time to speak,” said Schwieger.

Freshman Daniel Mazzerina said the discussion left him “generally optimistic.”

“This has been much more successful than the last debate, that’s for sure,” he said.

John Carney, Belmont’s vice president of marketing and communications, said he was proud of Belmont’s performance in hosting the national event – and said the press pool echoed that sentiment.

“We did everything at a high level, an excellent level,” Carney said. “They raved about our students, they raved about our volunteers.”

“I feel very proud. I feel a little empty, now that it’s over. And I feel the need to celebrate. And we’ve got to figure out a good, safe way to do that with the team that put this together.”

This article written by Justin Wagner. Contributory reporting by Abigail Bowen, Madison Bowen, Margot Pierson, Kendall Crawford,

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