ATLANTA: President Joe Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump faced off in a debate in Atlanta on Thursday, during which they blamed each other for the nation’s economic turmoil and handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and could only agree on wanting to eliminate Hamas.

Broadcaster CNN circumvented the independent US Commission on Presidential Debates to host the event, which was unprecedented because Biden and Trump have yet to be formally approved by their parties as candidates for the Nov. 5 elections.

The format had restrictions to prevent a repetition of events four years ago when Trump interrupted Biden 190 times, CNN reportedly stated.

Devoid of an audience to cheer or jeer, the rigid CNN format may have benefited Trump by forcing him to appear less disruptive, his supporters said.

It shifted the focus onto Biden who was slow to respond to questions, had difficulty hearing, and mixed up some phrases and words.

Bitter name-calling and a back-and-forth battle over who was responsible for the nation’s domestic challenges appeared to distract the two from responding fully to questions about the Middle East and Israel’s war on the Palestinians.

Pushed to explain what “additional leverage” Biden might apply to get Israel and Hamas to endorse his ceasefire plan, the president called the Palestinian group the primary obstacle to peace, the only point of agreement with Trump.

“No. 1, everyone from the UN Security Council straight through to the G7 to the Israelis and (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu himself have endorsed the (ceasefire) plan I put forward, endorsed the plan I put forward, which has three stages to it, Biden said.

“The first stage is to treat the hostages for a ceasefire. Second phase is a ceasefire with additional conditions. The third phase is knowing the end of the war.

“The only one who wants the war to continue is Hamas, no. 1. They’re the only ones not standing down. We’re still pushing hard to get them to accept.”

Biden added: “Hamas cannot be allowed to continue. We continue to send our experts and our intelligence people to how they can get Hamas like we did (Osama) bin Laden. You don’t have to do it.

“And by the way, they’ve been greatly weakened, Hamas, greatly weakened, and they should be. They should be eliminated. But you got to be careful for what you use these certain weapons among population centers.”

Trump said Biden is preventing Israel from eliminating Hamas. “As far as Israel and Hamas, Israel is the one that wants to go (and finish the job). He said the only one who wants to keep going is Hamas. Actually, Israel is the one, and you should (let) them go and let them finish the job,” Trump insisted.

“He doesn’t want to do it. He has become like a Palestinian. But they don’t like him because he’s a very bad Palestinian. He’s a weak one.”

On supporting efforts to establish a Palestinian state, Trump said: “I’d have to see.”

He said he had prevented Hamas from attacking Israel by blocking funds to Iran, which he claimed was the group’s major sponsor. He added that Biden’s “weak” leadership opened the door for Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

In response, Biden called Trump “the weak one,” adding: “I’m the guy that organized the world against Iran when they had a full-blown kind of ballistic missile attack on Israel.

“No one was hurt. No one Israeli was accidentally killed. And it stopped. We saved Israel. We’re the biggest producer of support for Israel than anyone in the world.”

Trump called Biden “the worst president” in US history. Biden slammed Trump as a “convicted felon” and compared his morals to that of an “alley cat.”

The debate took place about 1.6 km from Georgia Tech University, where 800 journalists from 34 countries, and campaign staff, watched on TV monitors.

After the debate, Republican and Democratic leaders came to the floor of the university’s pavilion to speak with reporters, with both sides declaring victory.

Republican member of Congress Elise Stefanik said the debate showed that Trump would “easily defeat” Biden in November, adding: “This is an absolute overwhelming knockout victory by President Trump tonight against a failed, feckless and weak Joe Biden.”

Vivek Ramaswamy, who had challenged Trump for president in the Republican primaries, said Biden seemed confused and only had “a spark of life for him when he was talking about Jan. 6 and Trump’s conviction.

“Biden doesn’t give a damn about the issues that affect Americans … President Biden came across as the mean guy in the room.”

Several Democrats declined to answer questions from reporters about the debate, and instead issued statements defending Biden and predicting his victory over Trump in November.

Asked if Biden should be concerned about the election, Sen. Raphael Warnock said: “I’d be concerned if the president didn’t have a record to run on, but the fact of the matter is this is a man who has passed historic legislation.”

Warnock added: “Elections are about the character of the country. The American people got a chance tonight to be reminded about the character of Donald Trump, a man who stood there and lied for 90 minutes straight.

“What I was struck by was that every time he was asked a question, you noticed Trump never answered the questions. America is better than Donald Trump.”

Biden and Trump are expected to participate in one more debate, to be hosted by ABC Network News on Sept. 10.

This will also circumvent rules set by the US Commission on Presidential Debates, which has hosted all these events since the 1980s.

Independent candidates excluded from the debate, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and dr. Jill Stein, hosted their own parallel events and responded in real time to the same questions posed by CNN to Biden and Trump.