WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden squared off, in a way, Thursday night, their scuttled second debate replaced by dueling televised town halls that showcased views on racial justice and approaches to the pandemic that has reshaped the nation.
Trump was defensive about his administration's handling of the coronavirus, which has claimed more than 217,000 American lives, and evasive when pressed about whether he took a required covid-19 test before his first debate with Biden.
The president also appeared to acknowledge that he was in debt and left open the possibility that some of it was owed to a foreign bank. He insisted that he didn't owe any money to Russia or any "sinister people" and suggested that being $400 million in debt was a "very very small percentage" compared with his overall assets.
Biden, appearing nearly 1,200 miles away, denounced the White House's handling of the virus, declaring that it was at fault for closing a pandemic response office established by the Obama administration in which he served.
Though vague at times, he acknowledged it was a mistake to support a 1994 crime bill that led to increased Black incarceration and suggested he finally will offer clarity on his position on expanding the Supreme Court if Trump's nominee to the bench is seated before Election Day.Gallery: Trump, Biden participate in town halls
Trump, less than two weeks after being diagnosed with covid-19, dodged directly answering whether he took a test the day of the Sept. 29 debate, saying only "possibly I did, possibly I didn't." Debate rules required that each candidate, using the honor system, had tested negative ahead of the Cleveland event.
It was his positive test two days later that created Thursday's spectacle, which deprived most viewers of a simultaneous look at the candidates just 19 days before Election Day.
Meanwhile, at least three people connected to Biden's presidential campaign have tested positive for the coronavirus, leading the campaign to suspend in-person events for vice-presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris through Monday.
Biden is not altering his public schedule, his campaign said Thursday, because he had no direct exposure to the individuals who tested positive, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It's the Biden campaign's first major coronavirus scare, after months of safety precautions that drew jokes from Trump, even after he, first lady Melania Trump and others contracted the virus themselves.
Biden's campaign announced two positive cases Thursday morning, identifying Harris' communications director Liz Allen and an unnamed member of the flight crew for one of Harris' recent campaign trips. The campaign announced a third case Thursday afternoon as part of its contact-tracing efforts from the first two cases.
The third individual is an aviation company employee who was on Biden's plane for trips to Ohio and Florida earlier this week but who entered the back of the plane and sat far away from Biden, according to the campaign.
Harris and Biden, meanwhile, spent several hours campaigning together in Arizona on Oct. 8, when the first two people who tested positive were on a flight with Harris. Both candidates have tested negative for the coronavirus several times since then, including on Thursday. Everyone on the Biden campaign plane is required to wear a mask.
Trump, speaking without a mask at a crowded outdoor rally in North Carolina on Thursday afternoon, offered his best wishes to Harris and reiterated his skepticism of wearing masks.
"We worry about her. I'm very concerned about her," he said, later adding: "Masks, no masks, everything, you can do all you want, but you know, you still need help."
During the town halls, the presidential rivals took questions in different cities on different networks: Trump on NBC from Miami, Biden on ABC from Philadelphia.
The town halls offered a different format for the two candidates to present themselves to voters, after the pair held a chaotic and combative first debate late last month.
Trump fought with the host, Savannah Guthrie, complained about the questioning -- and eventually said for the first time that he would honor the results of a fair election, but only after casting doubt on the likelihood of fairness.
"And then they talk, 'Will you accept a peaceful transfer,'" Trump said. "And the answer is, 'Yes, I will.' But I want it to be an honest election, and so does everybody else."
Trump flashed impatience with Guthrie's questioning when he was asked again to condemn white supremacy. "I denounce white supremacy, OK?" he replied.
Trump repeatedly declined to disavow QAnon, a pro-Trump internet community that has been described by law enforcement as a potential domestic terrorism threat. The president professed to have no knowledge of the group, and as a result could not disavow it.
"I know nothing about it," Trump said. "I do know they are very much against pedophilia. They fight it very hard."
He addressed revelations from a New York Times investigation that he has more than $400 million in debt and suggested that reports are wrong that he paid little or no federal income taxes in most years over the past two decades. He insisted that Americans should not be alarmed by his debt and repeatedly insisted that he is "underleveraged."
"It's a tiny percentage of my net worth," Trump said of his reported debt. But he left open the possibility that some of his debt is owed to a foreign bank by saying. "No, I don't owe Russia money. I owe a very, very small, it's called mortgages."
Biden meanwhile, who struggled growing up with a stutter, stuttered slightly at the start of the program and at one point squeezed his eyes shut and slowed down his response to clearly enunciate his words. At times his answers droned on.
Dressed in a blue suit and holding a white cloth mask in one hand, the Democratic nominee also had with him a small card of notes on stage and referred to it while promising to roll back tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. He said doing so would save, as he consulted his notes, "let me see... $92 billion."
COURT ANSWER VOWED
Biden vowed to say before Election Day whether he will support expanding the number of justices on the Supreme Court if Democrats win the presidency, the Senate and hold the House after November.
He has for weeks refused to answer the question but went further Thursday night. He said, "I'm still not a fan" of expanding the court, but that his ultimate decision depended on how the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court "is handled" and "how much they rush this."
Trump demurred when asked whether he supports overturning Roe v. Wade.
Trump was asked Thursday about the ruling establishing abortion rights nationwide. He said, "I don't want to do anything to influence anything right now."
Trump says that he didn't tell Barrett what decision to make and that he didn't want to do anything to influence her. He said he wants Barrett to get approved and "then I want her to go by the law, and I know she's going to make a great decision for our country."
Biden said there should be "zero discrimination" against transgender people and he promised to restore protections for them that he said Trump has sought to remove.
The former vice president recounted a story from his youth where he witnessed two men kissing and said his father turned to him and said, "Joey, it's simple: They love each other."
Biden also blasted Trump's foreign policy, declaring that "'America first' has made 'America alone'" and "This president embraces all the thugs in the world."
On energy, Biden sought to put distance between his clean energy goals and the Green New Deal, saying the policy plan popular with progressives isn't achievable within the time frames it has laid out.
"My deal's a crucial framework, but not the New Green Deal," Biden said, misstating the plan's name.
Trump did not give a direct answer to a woman who identified herself as the mother of a Black son who asked him to describe his plan to protect Black and Hispanic males from police brutality.
Trump said again that he's done more for the Black community than any president except Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
He talked about criminal-justice reform legislation he signed into law, opportunity zones and funding for historically Black colleges and universities.
Trump has made clear that he stands with the police. He says the majority of police are good people whose profession is tarnished by a few "bad apples."
Biden gave a winding explanation about why he should get the votes of young Black people who may not be enthusiastic about supporting him.
Biden initially touched on the criminal-justice system, suggesting it needed to be made "fair" and "more decent" before moving on to an assortment of economic and educational policies.
He said Black Americans need to be given tools to help generate wealth, including increased loans for Black-owned businesses and homeowners.
The former vice president said America also needs to increase its funding for schools with lower-income families and suggested adding more school psychologists in schools. He also proposed adding $70 billion to historically Black colleges and universities.
At the end of his five-minute answer, he offered to provide "a lot more" information to the young Black man who asked the question.
'PEOPLE NEED HOPE'
Biden turned introspective when asked what it would say if he lost.
"It could say that I'm a lousy candidate, that I didn't do a good job," Biden said. "But I think, I hope that it doesn't say that we're as racially, ethnically and religiously at odds as it appears the president wants us to be."
Biden said if he loses the election he will return to teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. However, he also said he would continue to press for racial justice, deferring to the leaders such as the late Georgia Rep. John Lewis as having made a bigger impact than he ever would.
Biden says, "People need hope." He adds: "We're a diverse country. And unless we are able to treat people equally, we're never going to reach our potential."
Trump ended his town hall meeting on a positive note.
Asked what he'd say to undecided voters, the Republican president declared Thursday night that he's "done a great job" in his first term and predicted that "next year is going to be better than ever before."
Campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh declared that the president "defeated" Guthrie, the town hall moderator, and derided the NBC "Today" host as a "surrogate" for Biden's campaign. The president was visibly upset at times with Guthrie and said more than once that they were "on the same side."
Murtaugh also said after Thursday's event that the president "masterfully handled Guthrie's attacks and interacted warmly and effectively with the voters in the room."
Biden said he plans to participate in next week's debate but that he would ask Trump to take a covid-19 test before arriving. "It's just decency" for everyone around him, including noncandidates like camera operators, Biden said.
The two men are still scheduled to occupy the same space for a debate for a second and final time next week in Nashville.
Information for this article was contributed by Jonathan Lemire, Will Weissert, Darlene Superville, Bill Barrow, Zeke Miller, Alexandra Jaffe, Kathleen Ronayne and Thomas Beaumont of The Associated Press; and by Alexander Burns and Katie Glueck of The New York Times.