RALEIGH, N.C. —  Much like public life over the past few months, the coronavirus dominated the first debate between the candidates for North Carolina’s U.S. Senate seat.

Republican incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham sparred over the government’s response to the pandemic and whether they would take a vaccine.  Asked about President Donald Trump’s handling of the outbreak, Cunningham came out swinging.

“We are seeing and experiencing an unprecedented failure of leadership in this country,” he said. “We have tens of thousands of Americans who have lost their lives.”

Tillis, meanwhile, touted his own vote in support of the CARES Act, the $2 trillion aid package approved by Congress back in March, while offering a defense of Trump.

“We haven’t seen anything like this for nearly a century. I think the president took a good first step by imposing the travel ban from Wuhan,” he said.

Vaccine Debate

Candidates also weighed in on the prospect of a potential vaccine. Cunningham said he would be hesitant to receive one if it was approved before the end of the year, noting he would have a lot of questions for the Food and Drug Administration.

“We have seen political and financial corruption that has intervened in and diluted and distorted decision making in Washington, D.C.,” Cunningham said.

Tillis pushed back, while brushing aside questions about potential political influence at federal health agencies.

“In the middle of the crisis, you don’t undermine an effective process in the FDA, you don’t shorten the line of people who desperately need the vaccine,” he said.

Cunningham later clarified to reporters that he would not hesitate to take a vaccine if it received a stamp of approval from public health officials.

A Toss-Up

North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race is one to watch. Cook Political Report rates it a “toss-up.” Millions of dollars are pouring into the race, which could determine the balance of power in the upper chamber of Congress.

The candidates are scheduled to meet for two more debates, including one on October 1 hosted by Spectrum News 1.