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Photo: Evan Vucci/AP

Tonight's dueling town halls were like a choose-your-own-ending book, letting us peer into the future and see what the two election outcomes would be like.

The big picture: The contrast reflects one of the big questions about Trump that's before Americans as they vote — Are you captivated, or are you exhausted?

  • On ABC, Joe Biden was chatty and substantive — focused on big issues. George Stephanopoulos prodded politely between serious questions from audience members. You could get up and walk away and get on with your life, and not worry about missing something big.
  • Over on NBC, Savannah Guthrie took a tougher line with President Trump, who was confident and combative. If you got up to go to the bathroom, you might miss the line of the night.

The town halls replaced what was supposed to be the second presidential debate, which was scrapped after Trump refused to participate virtually. Just flipping between the channels, you instantly saw and heard the differences:

  • NBC's set was outside, in Miami, so the broadcast had to be louder.
  • ABC was inside, in Philadelphia, with lower sound.
  • The decibels reflected the mood and the tone of the questions.

President Trump was unyielding and unapologetic on the coronavirus, with his views unchanged after his own hospitalization.

  • Trump continues to cherry-pick his stats. When Guthrie pointed out that U.S. coronavirus deaths per capita were among the highest among industrialized countries, Trump interjected: "Excess mortality! Excess mortality, we’re a winner."
  • Trump then credited himself with "an amazing job" and said the virus fight is "rounding the corner" — a day after Dr. Anthony Fauci told CBS' Norah O'Donnell that Thanksgiving gatherings may need to be curtailed.
Photo: Heidi Gutman/ABC

Biden continued to resist a flat answer on whether he'd favor adding justices to the Supreme Court.

  • "I'm not a fan," he said. Biden added that his ultimate position will depend on how the confirmation process for Judge Amy Coney Barrett is handled, and "how much they rush this."
  • "I'm open to considering what happens from that point on," Biden said.
  • When Stephanopoulos reminded the former vice president of his history of leveling with voters, Biden replied: "No matter what answer I gave you, if I say it, that’s the headline tomorrow. It won't be about what’s going on now — the improper way they're proceeding."

Biden suggested he'll clarify his position for voters in the next few weeks: "They do have a right to know where I stand, and they'll have a right to know where I stand before they vote."

  • Between the lines: More than 15 million Americans have early voted, so they didn't get that opportunity.
  • Pressed on whether that means he'll take a clear stand before Election Day, Biden said: "Yes — depending on how they handle this. But look: What you should do is ... make sure you vote."

Go deeper:

  • Video of Biden's court-packing answer.
  • Video: Biden says he will take COVID-19 vaccine if "body of scientists" says it's ready.
  • Video: Trump again refuses to condemn QAnon.
  • Video: Trump unsure about being tested for COVID-19 before first debate.

🎧 By the time you wake up ... "Axios Today" will be up with our latest reporting on the town halls.

Subscribe to Axios AM/PM for a daily rundown of what's new and why it matters, directly from Mike Allen.
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Go deeper

Kamala Harris, the new left's insider

Photo illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photo: Joe Buglewicz/Getty Images     

Progressive leaders see Sen. Kamala Harris, if she's elected vice president, as their conduit to a post-Biden Democratic Party where the power will be in younger, more diverse and more liberal hands.

  • Why it matters: The party's rising left sees Harris as the best hope for penetrating Joe Biden's older, largely white inner circle.

If Biden wins, Harris will become the first woman, first Black American and first Indian American to serve as a U.S. vice president — and would instantly be seen as the first in line for the presidency should Biden decide against seeking a second term.

Updated Aug 18, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Axios-NewsWhip 2020 attention tracker library

Biden's closing ad campaign

Joe Biden attends a virtual town hall event with Oprah Winfrey at The Queen theater in Delaware. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Joe Biden's team is spending tens of millions of dollars on a national digital ad campaign in the final days before Election Day — but highlighting a plethora of voters from Pennsylvania in particular, underscoring how critically important the state is.

Why it matters: Biden's team is betting that COVID-19 is on the ballot, and amplifying the stories of those affected by the pandemic with an emphasis on persuading voters in key battlegrounds to support the former VP.