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Photo: In a bit of a pew stew

Analysis: Pence is steady in debate but fails to knock Harris off course

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Vice President Mike Pence’s job Wednesday night was to seem reasonable and reassuring after days of uncertainty stoked by President Donald Trump, who shook voters with his own combative debate performance last week and then alarmed the nation with his positive test for coronavirus.

By that measure, then, Pence’s debate performance with his Democratic opponent Kamala Harris achieved its goal.

Harris landed her toughest attack of the night in the debate’s opening minutes — calling Trump’s handling of the virus “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country.” Pence sought to defend the administration’s coronavirus response with a selective retelling of key facts, leaning heavily on Trump’s decision to ban travel from China even as the death toll recently hit 212,000.

At other key moments through the night, Pence managed to put Harris on defense, and she evaded answering whether Democrats would expand the Supreme Court or implement the so-called Green New Deal climate plan, unlikely to play well in key swing states like Pennsylvania.

But a vice president merely hitting his marks isn’t enough to change the dynamic in a race where Republicans trail so badly. Democrat Joe Biden’s lead has grown to 9 points on average in national polls, and Trump has had to take a hiatus from active campaigning to fight COVID-19, drawing fresh scrutiny to his biggest vulnerability.

Either Trump, 74, or Biden, 77, would be the oldest man sworn in as president if elected. That notion, mentioned early on by moderator Susan Page of USA Today, also reminded viewers that both of the people on stage Wednesday night could well be gearing up for presidential campaigns of their own in 2024.

Harris, herself a veteran of a half-dozen Democratic primary debates, scored points of her own: first, on the pandemic effort — “clearly it hasn’t worked” — and then by demonstrating empathy and compassion for workers grappling with the economic destruction wreaked by the virus.

Pence’s propensity for speaking in lengthy and scripted soundbites proved largely effective, but his refusal to yield to Harris or Page also risked further alienating his ticket in the eyes of female voters his campaign desperately needs to win back.

“I will not sit here and be lectured by the vice president,” Harris interjected at one point.

At another, as Pence sought to interrupt, she turned with a stare and a smile: “Mr. Vice President, I am speaking.”

Pence also had his share of evasions, including on whether he and Trump would commit to a peaceful transfer of power if they lose the Nov. 3 election. But Pence appeared to revel in opportunities to focus criticisms of the Democratic platform that have received little air time in a contest that has largely been fought over the president’s temperament and record.

“More taxes, more regulation, banning fracking, abolishing fossil fuel, crushing American energy and economic surrender to China is a prescription for economic decline,” Pence said of Biden’s plans. Trump called Pence to congratulate him after the debate, a person familiar with the matter said.

None of the moments — except, perhaps, a two-minute interlude where a housefly landed on top of Pence’s closely cropped white hair — seemed likely to resonate for long in a presidential election where voters are far more interested in the top of the ticket. Biden’s campaign was already selling a branded fly-swatter within an hour of the debate’s conclusion.

Pence needed to make up ground, as the president’s coronavirus diagnosis has refocused attention on the pandemic and its consequences — to the detriment of the incumbents.

The president’s diagnosis appears to have spiked fears about the virus, with 72% of likely voters in battleground states surveyed in a CNBC poll released Sunday saying they have serious concerns about the pandemic. That’s up 7 points from two weeks ago. A majority — 54% — of battleground-state voters disapprove of Trump’s handling of the crisis, while 53% said Biden would do a better job.

And voters fault Trump personally for not taking the virus seriously enough; while three in four say Biden has taken the appropriate precautions to prevent exposure to the virus, just 39% said Trump had done the same.

The centrality of the pandemic was reinforced by the placement of plexiglass barricades between the candidates, and rampant social media speculation about whether an irritation in the vice president’s eye could be evidence of a more serious ailment. Pence, who chairs the administration’s coronavirus task force, was left defending a president who has prioritized reopening the economy over the recommendations of the scientists the vice president convenes regularly.

“This administration has forfeited their right to reelection,” Harris said of the administration’s response to the virus.

But neither candidate engaged when the moderator noted that the president’s brush with the deadly virus had only underscored the very real possibility that one of the two candidates on stage could be president themselves someday.

Pence also challenged Harris over a proposal by some Democrats to add justices to the Supreme Court in response to Republican plans to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the court before the election.

Voters, Pence said, “would like to know if you and Joe Biden are going to pack the Supreme Court if you don’t get your way in this nomination.”

But Harris, a former prosecutor and California attorney general, also landed blows over Trump’s handling of race while signaling to viewers at home that she wouldn’t be pushed around by Pence. She slammed Trump’s refusal to explicitly condemn hate groups during the previous week’s debate as “part of a pattern” while repeatedly praising Biden as a wise political hand who “recognizes the beauty in our diversity.”

The debate was also notable because both candidates refused the chance to show distance between themselves and their running mates — despite the chance they could be reprising this battle for the Oval Office in coming years.

Harris held the line for Biden as Pence pressured her to explain her positions as senator on climate change, while the vice president defended Trump’s decision to hold a largely maskless event in the Rose Garden that now appears to have helped trigger the White House coronavirus outbreak.

And despite the contrast, the affair certainly ranked as more civil than Trump’s and Biden’s presidential debate, which was marked with frequent interruptions and insults. It’s unclear after the president’s diagnosis whether next Thursday’s town hall debate with Biden and Trump will proceed.

While Trump’s doctor said earlier in the day that his status was continuing to improve and campaign officials said he was preparing to debate next week in Miami, Biden has said he does not believe the debate should occur if the president is still battling the virus.

”I think if he still has COVID we shouldn’t have a debate,” Biden told reporters Tuesday on his way back from a campaign stop in Pennsylvania.

Gov. Inslee and Loren Culp debate crime, coronavirus and climate in Washington gubernatorial debate

OLYMPIA — Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and his Republican challenger Loren Culp offered starkly different visions for how they would govern Washington in a debate Wednesday night, clashing on issues from how to stop the coronavirus, to the state’s role in climate change, to how to limit crime and gun violence.

On issue after issue, Culp advocated for less government involvement, leaving responsibility to individuals, while Inslee made the case for the government to actively address the problem.

Culp, the police chief of tiny Republic in Ferry County, repeatedly accused Inslee of overstepping his authority as governor in mandating business closures and mask-wearing to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

Inslee, who is seeking a third term, called Culp a “mini-Trump” and repeatedly tied him to the president’s policies, specifically Trump’s push in the courts to have the Affordable Care Act thrown out.

Culp has been hosting rallies across the state with little social distancing and few masks in sight. Wednesday he said he was not personally opposed to masks but didn’t think it was the government’s role to mandate, or even encourage, their use.

“Let the free, individual citizen decide what’s best for their families and their businesses,” he said.

Inslee countered that the measures he’s put in place — restrictions on the operating capacity of restaurants and other businesses and mandated masks for almost all Washingtonians in shared, public spaces — have slowed the virus and saved hundreds, if not thousands of lives.

“Are we going to step up and fight the COVID pandemic or are we going to belittle it, ignore it and, in some sense, surrender to it?” Inslee said. “It’s too dangerous to have a mini-Trump right now, in the middle of this pandemic.”

Because of coronavirus concerns, the debate took place in three separate television studios — one for each candidate and a third for the four moderators.

The difference in experience between the two candidates could hardly be more vast.

Inslee was a part-time city prosecutor, served in the state House for four years, in Congress for two years, as a presidential appointee in the federal government, in Congress (in a district on the other side of the state) for 14 more years and as governor for eight years. Along the way he also lost elections for Congress, for governor and for president of the United States.

Culp has never run for elected office. He served four years in the Army, started a construction business and, at age 49, changed careers to become a police officer in Republic. He is currently the police chief and only officer in the 1,100-person town.

Culp tried to use the difference to his advantage, accusing Inslee of having been in government too long and saying he would act as governor in a “servant role.”

On the state budget, which faces a shortfall in the billions of dollars, Culp has said that taxes should not go up. Pressed on what should be cut, he only said he would look at each program but would begin with cutting “anything that has the word ‘study’ in it.”

Inslee said he couldn’t yet say whether he would propose tax increases to fill the budget hole.

Whoever’s elected, it will represent a rare victory, something that hasn’t happened in Washington in decades. Inslee would be the first Washington governor elected to a third term in 48 years, since Dan Evans in 1972. Culp would be the first Republican elected governor of Washington in 40 years, since John Spellman in 1980, and the first governor elected from Eastern Washington in 88 years.

Inslee based his presidential campaign last year on climate change. Culp all but dismissed climate science. He said that in the 1970s, he remembers talk about how the climate was getting cooler.

“I don’t deny that the climate changes,” he said, adding that climate change had not played a role in the string of wildfires that burned through Washington and the West Coast last month.

Asked what he would do to address climate change, Culp said he loves “clean water, clean air and clean land” and “we need to get bureaucrats out of the way.”

Inslee, who signed into law legislation last year improving energy efficiency in Washington buildings and moving the state to carbon-neutral electricity by 2030, called climate change a “health issue.”

“I don’t know what’s worse, denying climate is caused by carbon, or admitting it and doing nothing about it,” he said. “Chief Culp has proposed zero.”

Inslee, on at least three occasions, noted in his answer that 800,000 people in Washington have health care under the Affordable Care Act, and they’re at risk of losing that because of a Republican-led, and Trump-supported lawsuit.

Answering a question about systemic racism, he noted the staggering wealth gap between white families and Black families and then said, “This world of Donald Trump and Chief Culp means we will not have health care for many people of color.”

Culp, who has said he does not believe there is systemic racism in policing, said he wants everyone in the country to have equal opportunities. And he noted that Democrats have led the state of Washington for decades.

“If the system is racist, who has been in charge of the system in Washington state for the last 35 years?” he said.

Culp, who first gained notice for refusing to enforce a voter-passed initiative that raised the age to buy a semi-automatic rifle from 18 to 21, said the law was, in his view, unconstitutional. Courts have, so far, disagreed.

”We don’t have a gun violence problem in this state or in this country,” he said. “We have a criminal violence problem. We need to focus on criminals and put them in jail where they belong.”

He faulted Inslee for ordering some inmates released from state prisons, to reduce crowding, in the early days of the pandemic.

”Chief Culp talks about law and order,” Inslee responded. “I don’t understand why he refuses to enforce the constitutional law that protects us from gun violence.”

Trump says COVID-19 aid talks have restarted, good chance for deal

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Donald Trump on Thursday said talks with Congress have restarted over further COVID-19 economic relief and that there was a good chance a deal could be reached, but gave no other details about a possible agreement.

“Now, they are starting to work out,” he told Fox Business Network in a telephone interview about talks, after he cut off negotiations via a post on Twitter earlier this week.

On Wednesday evening, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin about the possibility of Congress passing a bill to help the ailing U.S. airline industry.

This morning, Pelosi said there would be no additional federal aid for airlines without a more comprehensive COVID-19 relief package, adding that she was hopeful for a larger deal “because it has to be done.”

“Ain’t going to be no standalone bill, unless there is a bigger bill,” Pelosi told reporters.

Democrats have been pushing for $25 billion in new aid to alleviate airline companies’ planned layoffs. But they also want a more comprehensive bill that includes money to assist state and local governments.

Trump’s remarks early on Thursday were one more lurch in a roller-coaster week in which he had reversed his call for intensive negotiations on a new coronavirus aid bill by proclaiming that there would be no more talks on a deal until after the Nov. 3 presidential and congressional elections.

The Republican president also said discussions include a second round of $1,200 direct payments to individuals.

With the coronavirus pandemic still raging in the United States, Trump, who was diagnosed last week with COVID-19, is trailing Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in public opinion polls.

Worries over the pandemic top voters’ concerns and Trump has gotten low marks on his handling of it.

Meanwhile, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told Fox News that the U.S. economic recovery does not depend upon another stimulus bill, despite warnings from Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell that action was needed.

Kudlow added that the administration wants to see “standalone” bills to provide additional unemployment assistance, an extension of the Paycheck Protection Program small business loans, stimulus checks for individuals and education aid.

All these components would make for a large package that could carry a high price tag — possibly well beyond anything Senate Republicans would support.

Over the past couple months, Pelosi has scaled back her demand for around $3.4 trillion in new aid, saying Democrats who control the House could settle for around $2.2 trillion. The White House went on record, several weeks ago, backing as much as $1.6 trillion in aid.

But many Senate Republicans have balked at anything over $1 trillion, with some of them opposed to any aid beyond the more than $3 trillion enacted earlier this year.

Second day of free COVID testing draws lots of locals

WENATCHEE — Local residents continued coming in droves on Wednesday to the free COVID testing at Wenatchee High School that is being offered over four days this week. The first day so many people showed up for the testing, many had to be turned away at the end of the day.

People were coming to the testing for a variety of reasons, some personal and some hoping to help the community and get students back in school.

“I personally wanted to know if I was positive. I have some friends coming to town so I wanted to know,” said Michael Newton of Wenatchee.

The Chelan-Douglas Health District is conducting the testing to gather more data in hopes of reopening schools and businesses in the area. The testing is Tuesday-Friday this week from 1-to-7 p.m. Results will be available in 24-48 hours.

Bob Corkrum of East Wenatchee said he had a good friend get tested so he wanted to get tested, too. Plus, he’s planning to go to Mexico in two weeks.

Gabe Worman of Oregon said his boss was having him get tested. “I work in the orchard so this works out well,” Worman said.

Kimberly Urdahl of East Wenatchee said she was being tested to provide community information and collect scientific data.

“We have a kindergartener and would love for him to be in school,” said parent Amy Jennings.

Jake Lewing said he wanted to take advantage of the free testing.

“I just came here to do my part to get a more accurate count to open things up, school and things,” Lewing said.

Anne Koch of Wenatchee said she wanted to make sure to do the right thing for the community and her family. She wants to see the kids back in school.

“I support public health. We need to have more negative numbers so our kids can get in school,” said Debra Holland of Wenatchee.

Jaye Delabarre of Wenatchee figured she would only get tested if she thought she had COVID, but when the free testing was offered, she thought it would be good to be tested in hopes of getting schools reopened.

Just as many people showed up for the community-wide COVID testing at Wenatchee High School as the first day but on Wednesday everything went much better.

On Tuesday, cars were already lined up in the Wenatchee High School parking lot when the testing began, so not much could be done about guiding the traffic, which ended up slowing everything down.

Medical Team Incident Commander Brian McMahan said the cars came so early for Tuesday’s testing they were unable to manage the traffic. On Wednesday, he said they came back with a plan to keep the traffic manageable by forming two lines in the parking lot.

While cars were getting bottlenecked at the testing site for 15-20 minutes on Tuesday, the average wait time on Wednesday was seven minutes. In the last hour Tuesday night, 53 people were told they would not make it.

McMahan said some chose to come back the next day while others chose to be tested in East Wenatchee that night.

“Only one person showed up after 6:45 (p.m.) and we told him line won’t allow it (to get tested). Only one person was turned away at the end. We didn’t have data on how long they waited until later in the day,” McMahan said on Wednesday. “Generally, what we’ve encountered is we have a way to move the flow faster today.”

The free COVID testing continues from 1 to 7 p.m. on Thursday and Friday at Wenatchee High School.

Douglas County works to recover from Pearl Hill Fire

BRIDGEPORT — The Douglas County Commission is working to map areas impacted by the Pearl Hill Fire, start reseeding efforts and help communities against erosion.

Douglas County borrowed a sandbag machine from Yakima County that can make 1,000 sandbags per hour, Douglas County Commissioner Marc Straub said.

It is also looking to start reseeding some of the areas where the top soil is now bare, but is running into funding issues. In addition, the county is working with the U.S. Geological Survey to do an in-depth review of how the fire behaved.

It’s challenging to really grasp the total impact of the Pearl Hill Fire, Straub said. It depends who you ask.

“I know one rancher, for example, that lost 50 miles of fencing and that equates to somewhere just under $1 million to replace that,” he said. “It’s just staggering, so from that perspective it’s devastating.”

Landslides aren’t too much of a risk, except in the city of Bridgeport, because a large portion of Douglas County is a plateau, Straub said. They are seeing some massive dust storms, though, in the aftermath of the fire as winds pick up the exposed topsoil.

In the Bridgeport area, though, the county and city have been working to get enough sandbags ready in case of flooding, he said. They also bought 100-plus ecology blocks, which are like Jersey barriers, to shore up the hillsides.

They are also trying to get started on reseeding efforts as soon as possible to stabilize the hillsides, Straub said. They also want to start planting to prevent invasive cheatgrass, which is far more flammable, from taking root.

The area that needs reseeding is huge. “It’s a tremendous amount of acreage,” he said. “That’s what’s most daunting, when you look at the sheer size of the burn scar. So you have to be able to go in and prioritize.”

The problem is reseeding is expensive, especially considering the size of the area, and the Pearl Hill Fire still hasn’t been called a national emergency, Straub said. In the past, it’s taken up to two years to get Federal Emergency Management Agency funding after fires and the county doesn’t have that much time, he said.

“And so that is one of the things we’re working on right now is getting some assurances that we will be able to get access to funding,” Straub said.

It’s also important for the ranchers and cattle drivers to start replanting native grasses, he said. Their cattle have no place to graze, which means they have to provide hay and feed for their livestock throughout the winter. That’s a very expensive situation for ranchers.

Or, “you look for other areas to take them,” Straub said. “One of the hopes is that some of what’s referred to as the safe acreage, which is basically conservation acres that are under management, would be allowed for grazing.”