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Dueling town halls with Biden in Philly and Trump in Miami make for a 2020 split-screen moment

The events gave national audiences one of their last looks at the two contenders, though viewers were hard-pressed to compare them side-by-side, since the town halls overlapped.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden before the start of an ABC town hall Thursday at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden before the start of an ABC town hall Thursday at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.Read moreCarolyn Kaster / AP

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden blasted President Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus Thursday, while at the same time 1,200 miles away, Trump said he encourages people to wear face masks but then cast doubt on their effectiveness.

Their comments came during an extraordinary split-screen moment just weeks before Election Day, with Biden appearing in a live televised town hall from Philadelphia while Trump held a dueling event in Miami.

The two town halls, running simultaneously, displayed the different styles and approaches of the two candidates.

Biden’s event, low on drama, was long on policy talk on the coronavirus, taxes, criminal justice, energy, the environment, and the Supreme Court.

Trump, by contrast, had a combative exchange with NBC anchor Savannah Guthrie, refused to denounce the QAnon conspiracy theory, misrepresented a study about the effectiveness of face masks, and wouldn’t say if he had been tested for the coronavirus before his debate with Biden in late September.

Biden, answering questions from Pennsylvania voters at the National Constitution Center, said that as president he would listen to scientists and lead by example, urging people to wear masks. Medical experts have said masks are one of the most effective ways to slow the spread of a pandemic that has killed almost 220,000 people in the U.S.

“Americans don’t panic, he panicked,” Biden said of Trump in an event hosted by ABC News. “It is a presidential responsibility to lead, and he didn’t do that. He didn’t talk about what needed to be done because he kept worrying, in my view, about the stock market.”

At the same time on NBC News, Trump misrepresented a federal study by falsely saying 85% of people who wear masks get the virus.

“I’m good with masks. I’m OK with masks. I tell people that,” Trump told Guthrie. Pressed on why he doesn’t wear a mask in public interactions, he said: “People with masks are getting it all the time.”

Trump, who recently contracted the coronavirus, said earlier that he could not remember whether he was tested before his first debate with Biden.

“I don’t know. I don’t even remember. I test all the time,” Trump said. “Possibly I did. Possibly I didn’t.”

» READ MORE: Rural Pennsylvania voters don’t hate Biden as much as they hated Clinton — and Trump may need them to

Biden, later in the evening, said “it’s just decency” to be tested before such an event, adding that it should be done for the safety of the camera crews, Secret Service agents, and others involved in such events.

The dueling town halls came in place of a formal debate that had been scheduled for Thursday. Biden came into the event leading by double digits in almost every major national poll and by smaller but still substantial margins in key battlegrounds like Pennsylvania.

The events gave national audiences one of their last looks at the two contenders, though most viewers were likely hard-pressed to compare them side-by-side, since the town halls overlapped.

Biden, in the event hosted by ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos, answered policy questions the way a typical candidate does: answering some directly, skirting others, citing data that backed up his point while steering away from details that might hurt it.

In one exchange, Biden gave his most extensive answers yet about the question of “court packing,” or expanding the number of justices on the Supreme Court — as some liberals have urged as a response to a conservative-leaning court created with the help of hardball GOP tactics.

He still did not, however, take a definitive position on the issue.

“I’m not a fan” of court packing, Biden said, but added that there are several other “alternatives” he didn’t specify. Pressed by Stephanopoulos, Biden said his response would depend on how Republicans handle the confirmation of Trump’s latest high court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett — “for example, is there an actual real, live debate” in the Senate.

“I’m open to considering what happens from that point on,” Biden said, pledging to make his position clear before Election Day.

» READ MORE: Biden to Dems: Focus on health care, not Supreme Court expansion

He defended his refusal to make his views clear so far.

“If I had answered the question directly then all the focus would be on, ‘What’s Biden going to do if he wins?’ instead of on, ‘Is it appropriate what is going on now?’ ” Biden said. “This is the thing that the president loves to do, always take our eye off the ball, what’s at stake.”

Late in the event, Biden was asked what it would say about the country if he lost.

“Well, it could say that I’m a lousy candidate, that I didn’t do a good job," Biden said. "But, I hope that it doesn’t say that we are as racially, ethnically, and religiously at odds with one another as it appears the president wants us to be.”

Trump, meanwhile, was evasive on whether he would denounce the QAnon conspiracy theory, a baseless and constantly changing online conspiracy that holds that Democrats operate a pedophilia ring and eat children to consume their supposedly life-giving blood.

» READ MORE: Trump is making the 2020 election a recipe for chaos. How Philly is preparing.

Trump at first said he didn’t know anything about the theory, but then complimented its followers for opposing child abuse.

“What I do hear about it is they are very strongly against pedophilia, and I agree with that,” he said.

Trump then pivoted to attacking antifa, the loosely organized antifascist protest movement that Republicans blame for violence during the recent civil unrest.

“I’ll tell you what I do know. I know about antifa, and I know about the radical left, and I know how violent they are,” he said. Later he said, “I denounce white supremacy,” making a clear statement on an issue he has often muddled.

Trump was visibly irritated in the town hall’s initial segment as Guthrie pressed the president on several issues, including his handling of the pandemic, his past remarks on white supremacy, and his statements indicating he may not accept the outcome of the election if he loses.

» READ MORE: Fact-checking Trump’s claim in Pa. that he’s ‘putting our great coal miners back to work’

Guthrie sharply grilled Trump in an event that came as many criticized NBC for giving Trump a national platform after he had declined to participate in a formal debate scheduled for Thursday. The debate was canceled when Trump refused to participate in a virtual format. Organizers pushed to move the event online after Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis.

“These two town halls capture perfectly the difference in media treatment, Trump vs. Biden,” tweeted Trump spokesman Tim Murtaugh. “ABC is doing everything they can to keep Joe Biden comfortable. Meanwhile, Savannah Guthrie is attacking the President like she openly hates him. Couldn’t be encapsulated better.”

Biden’s event was like “watching an episode of Mister Rodgers Neighborhood,” tweeted Trump campaign aide Mercedes Schlapp.

“After watching endless episodes of American Horror Story I’ll take it,” responded state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a Philadelphia Democrat who supports Biden.

» READ MORE: What a group of Pennsylvania voters thought of the first debate between Trump and Biden

The first presidential debate, on Sept. 29, was widely seen as a debacle after Trump repeatedly interrupted Biden, ignoring the moderator and debate rules, largely preventing either candidate from making a coherent case for himself.

Biden used the more docile event Thursday to lay out several plans in more detail as Pennsylvanians from both parties, some who are undecided, asked him questions.

» READ MORE: A question for Joe Biden from an undocumented family in Philly church sanctuary: Will you free us?

Also on Thursday, Biden’s campaign announced that two people who have worked around Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic nominee for vice president, tested positive for the coronavirus. Harris tested negative for the virus Wednesday, the Biden campaign said, but she is being taken off the campaign trail through the weekend as a precaution.

A person who had flown on the same plane as Biden also tested positive but had had no contact with the former vice president, the campaign said.