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Biden, Sanders in first one-on-one debate

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Showdown will take place in studio with no audience to limit possible exposure to coronavirus

WASHINGTON: US Democratic presidential contenders Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders square off in the first one-on-one debate of the campaign in Washington DC at 8pm on Sunday (8am today, Singapore time).

The two-hour showdown between front-runner Biden and his last viable rival, Mr Sanders, was originally scheduled for Phoenix.

It will now take place in a studio with no audience, a move made to limit possible exposure to the coronavirus - a sign of how deeply the campaign routine has been reshaped by the global pandemic.

The debate, perhaps the last in the Democratic race to pick an election challenger to Republican President Donald Trump, will give Mr Biden and Mr Sanders an opportunity to project leadership and a sense of calm and stability in a deepening crisis.

Biden, Sanders in first one-on-one debate
The two-hour showdown will give Bernie Sanders (left) and Joe Biden an opportunity to project leadership and a sense of calm and stability in a deepening crisis. PHOTO: AFP

"People have been anxious to beat Trump, but now with coronavirus they are just anxious," said Ms Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Mrs Hillary Clinton.

"This will be a chance for both of them to look presidential."

The encounter will provide clues about how far Mr Biden, the former vice-president and centrist standard-bearer, might go to seek party unity for the Nov 3 general election and court the progressive supporters of Mr Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who dropped her White House bid earlier this month but has not endorsed anyone.

The debate will be held two days before tomorrow's primaries in the big states of Ohio, Illinois, Florida and Arizona.

Another string of Biden victories there would give him a nearly unassailable lead over Mr Sanders, a democratic socialist senator from Vermont.

Despite a sweeping series of primary victories by Mr Biden in the last two weeks, Mr Sanders has vowed to stay in the race and keep pushing his anti-corporate economic agenda.

The debate will be the first hint of whether Mr Sanders is more interested in attacking Mr Biden or engaging in a measured policy discussion.

"Sanders' attitude and approach to this debate will probably give us some insight into how he intends to wage his own campaign," said professor emeritus and debate expert Alan Schroeder at Northeastern University.

The Democratic campaign has taken a backseat in the past week to the escalating outbreak, which has slammed financial markets and threatened economic havoc while shuttering schools, sports events and cultural sites across the US.

Both Mr Biden and Mr Sanders, who were forced to cancel campaign rallies as the virus spread, gave speeches last week offering their own approaches to the crisis and trying to draw a contrast with Mr Trump, who spent weeks minimising the threat before declaring a national emergency on Friday.

Both candidates took aim at Mr Trump, with Mr Biden saying fears about the outbreak were fuelled by a lack of trust in the president.

Mr Sanders said the official response had been hurt by Mr Trump's incompetence and the absence of universal healthcare. - REUTERS