WILMINGTON, Del. — Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris made their debut as running mates in a high school gymnasium Wednesday, pledging to lead the country out of the coronavirus crisis amid an onslaught of attacks from President Trump as the two national tickets went head to head for the first time, less than three months before Election Day.
The first full day for the newly announced Democratic presidential ticket offered a glimpse of how two once-bitter rivals from opposite coasts and different generations will try to unite Americans around their candidacies. Projecting warmth toward each other, Biden and Harris sketched out a vision of recovery from the public health and economic catastrophes the nation is confronting — crises that, they argued, Trump has made worse at every turn with an extraordinarily divisive presidency.
“We need more than a victory on Nov. 3,” Harris said. “We need a mandate that proves that the past few years do not represent who we are or who we aspire to be.”
Harris, a Californian who once served as attorney general of the state, made clear that part of her campaign role would be demonstrating her skills as a prosecutor to build a case against Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, methodically detailing what she cast as their failures in combating the coronavirus, reopening the economy, and creating conditions under which schools could reopen safely this fall.
“Let me tell you, as somebody who has presented my fair share of arguments in court, the case against Donald Trump and Mike Pence is open and shut,” Harris said.
Other contours of Harris’s role in the campaign also started coming into focus Wednesday. A Biden adviser described Harris as well-positioned to connect with Black and Latino voters across the country as well as with suburban women, saying that the campaign expected her presence on the ticket to drive turnout in Arizona, Florida, and Texas in particular, as well as in communities of color nationally.
People familiar with Harris’s plans said they expected her to be a major presence on the virtual fund-raising circuit, and she and Biden, the former vice president, held a grass-roots fund-raiser Wednesday night. There, Biden announced that in the past 24 hours, the campaign had raised $26 million, with 150,000 first-time contributors, according to a pool report.
Trump, who has unleashed sexist attacks on Harris, called her “a very risky pick” at a news conference as he referred to “horrible things” she had said about Biden during the primary campaign, suggesting those words would haunt the ticket.
“I’m sure that’ll be played back,” Trump said. “Not necessarily by me but others; it’ll be played back.”
Trump also defended his administration’s response to the virus, citing the number of tests that have been administered and bragging about the government’s efforts to ramp up production of ventilators to help gravely ill patients.
“We have better testing than any country in the world,” he said. “But when you look at the job that we’ve done compared to others, we’ve done a great job.”
As Biden and Harris spoke Wednesday before a group of socially distanced reporters — not the excited crowd of supporters that would normally greet such an occasion — they struck a sharply different tone as each nodded to the symbolism and historic nature of the moment. This was the third anniversary of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., Biden noted — the reason, he has said, that he decided to run against Trump in the first place.
“I knew we were in the battle for the soul of the nation,” Biden said. “That’s when I decided to run. And I’m proud now to have Senator Harris at my side in that battle, because she shares the same intensity I do.”
And the former vice president, Harris said, was “the only” person who had “served alongside the first Black president and has chosen the first Black woman as his running mate.”
Harris, the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica, is the first woman of color on a major party’s presidential ticket, and she and Biden argued that possibilities for American success stories abound despite the challenges that the nation confronts.
“Her story’s America’s story,” Biden said.
But they also laid out the staggering toll that the coronavirus crisis had taken on every facet of life and made clear that the two Democrats hope to make the election in significant part a referendum on Trump’s handling of the outbreak.
“This virus has impacted almost every country, but there’s a reason it has hit America worse than any other advanced nation,” Harris said. “It’s because of Trump’s failure to take it seriously from the start. His refusal to get testing up and running. His flip-flopping on social distancing and wearing masks. His delusional belief that he knows better than the experts. All of that is reason, and the reason, that an American dies of COVID-19 every 80 seconds.”
Harris also spoke more broadly of the stakes of the election. “This is a moment of real consequence for America. Everything we care about — our economy, our health, our children, the kind of country we live in — it’s all on the line,” she said.
The joint appearance, which came a day after Biden announced his decision, followed a vice-presidential search process that played out in a highly public fashion.
Some of Biden’s allies have made clear their reservations about Harris, which originated with her searing confrontation on the debate stage last summer over Biden’s record on busing. And some of the criticism of Harris from Democrats has played out through sexist language around whether she was overly “ambitious,” a dynamic she appeared to nod to when she said she was “mindful of all the heroic and ambitious women before me.”
But Harris and Biden repeatedly sought Wednesday to demonstrate that they shared a policy agenda and personal values, and they emphasized the importance of Harris’s friendship with Beau Biden, Biden’s son who died in 2015.
“Kamala,” Joe Biden told his running mate, “you’ve been an honorary Biden for quite some time.”
Harris, too, invoked Beau Biden, in a moment loaded with emotion, recalling their frequent phone conversations when they were both state attorneys general.
“I learned quickly that Beau was the kind of guy who inspired people to be a better version of themselves,” Harris said. “He really was the best of us. And when I would ask him: ‘Where did you get that? Where did this come from?’ he’d always talk about his dad.”
And in a campaign video released earlier Wednesday, Harris used language that strongly echoed some of Joe Biden’s key campaign catchphrases, describing him as “a man of faith, decency, and character.”
The joint appearance provided a striking reminder of how the pandemic has upended the rhythms of a presidential campaign. Four years ago, Hillary Clinton and her newly selected running mate, Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, made their debut appearance in front of thousands of people inside an arena in Miami. Biden, on the other hand, barely strayed from his Wilmington home for his appearance with Harris.