Vice presidential debates are usually known more for exposing pitfalls than for their ability to fundamentally alter the state of play. But that was before President Donald Trump’s recent hospitalization for COVID-19.
Now, the matchup between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) on Wednesday night in Salt Lake City has shifted from sideshow to center stage.
The event has already been met with a preamble about what precautions the Commission on Presidential Debates should take to avoid spreading the deadly virus after the White House was hit by cases that sickened Trump, the first lady, and nearly two dozen people in their periphery.
The Biden campaign, pointing to the Trump entourage’s refusal to wear masks at the first general election debate and the subsequent infections that made the Rose Garden look like a Carnival cruise ship, has pushed for increased distance between Pence and Harris.
The Trump campaign, standing on shaky ground when it comes to virus protocols, has in return mocked their opponent’s push for further protections, including a plexiglass barrier advised by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Whether or not Harris shows up in a Zorb, the added pressure that the University of Utah showdown could be the final one of the cycle is also apparent. On Tuesday night, Biden told the traveling press pool that if the president is still suffering from coronavirus at the scheduled time of the next debate, the event should not take place.
“Well, uh, I think if he still has COVID, we shouldn’t have a debate," Biden told a pool reporter.
Assuming that neither campaign pulls out last minute, the reality that Trump was in the hospital just two days prior to their joint debut underscores their fundamental task: showing that they are ready to take the reins of the American government if needed.
“It’s a cliché, but ‘one heartbeat away from the presidency’ means a lot more when both men at the top of the ticket are in their seventies,” said one person involved in Biden’s debate prep during the Democratic presidential primaries.
Harris will be squaring off not just against a preternaturally unflappable debater in Pence, but against high expectations for a performance that Democrats have fantasized about for years. High-profile exchanges with Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings—and, to a lesser extent, similar moments interrogating Jeff Sessions and Bill Barr in their confirmation hearings to head the Justice Department—were a ratings and fundraising gold, and inspired hope that she would eviscerate the president on a debate stage. (There is literally fanfiction depicting her facing Trump in a debate and crushing him).
After all, one of the high-water marks in the California senator’s primary bid was in a debate with Biden himself, where her confrontation over his past work with segregationists and opposition to bussing became an issue even among some Biden’s most ardent supporters.
Clearly aware that high expectations bring the possibility for a vertiginous fall, Harris has publicly emphasized Pence’s debating chops.
“Let me just say something: he’s a good debater. So, I’m so concerned—like, I can only disappoint,” Harris laughingly told attendees of a virtual fundraiser last month. “Because literally, he’s a very, he’s a very good debater. He’s a very good debater. So, I definitely am going to prepare for this debate like I have for previous debates, but I take this debate very seriously. And I think we can expect he’s going to be very good.”
Having recently run for president herself, Harris is familiar and comfortable with the unpredictable nature of a publicized primetime format. Throughout her stint in the Democratic primary, she was often hailed as a tough yet nimble debater, able to deliver both a knock to any one of her direct opponents and boast about her own record when needed.
This time, she’ll be bragging on behalf of Biden.
After being selected to serve as the former vice president’s running mate in August, Harris has become one of his brightest and most effective surrogates on the virtual and physical campaign trail. She used her first in-person appearance with Biden to lambaste Trump, a move that was resoundingly praised from fellow Democrats as necessary and skilled.
That no-holds-barred approach towards the president from the Democratic ticket changed slightly after he was hospitalized. The Biden campaign decided to remove all “negative” ads about the president as a courtesy while he heals, for example. But that does not mean that Harris will shy away from linking Pence’s record to the president’s own, a Biden campaign source familiar with the debate strategy told The Daily Beast.
The person with knowledge of the preparations said that the fundamental nature of their planning had not changed as of Tuesday afternoon, though they were closely monitoring developing news events. Harris is ready to discuss a range of issues similar to what came up during the Trump-Biden debate, the source said, with the caveat that they expect it to be a more even-toned exchange without Pence interrupting Harris much or at all.
They also anticipate the vice president will “forcefully lie,” a skill that, according to the plugged-in Biden campaign aide, he has aptly honed while in the White House. “He’s effective in that way,” the source said. “He is. That’s just the truth of it. Look no further than his RNC speech.”
Harris is also expected to expressly tie the national emergencies occurring during the pandemic to Pence’s role as leader of the coronavirus taskforce, painting the whole thing as a colossal failure—an approach that Democratic allies embraced as strategic. “He pretty much failed at that job,” said the Biden campaign aide. “You’re sitting across from the guy that was supposed to be the one to get it done. I think you have an opportunity, with him on the stage, to highlight just how badly they have handled all of this.”
“Mike Pence is asking for a contract renewal here,” said Cecile Richards, the co-founder of the Democratic group Supermajority who was formerly the president of Planned Parenthood. “He has been the vice president for four years. This is a catastrophe. He was in charge of it.”
“I do think that’s going to dominate the conversation,” Richards said.
On a personal level, Harris, a Black and Asian American female senator from the West Coast, inherently represents a contrast to Pence, a white male former governor from a red Midwestern state. Before she took the stage, the Biden campaign announced a trio of new advertisements to subtly address that, targeted towards Black voters. One spot is focused on Biden’s economic proposal, likely to come up during the 90-minute event.
“I expect her to come ready and with facts,” said Jess O’Connell, a strategist and the former CEO of the Democratic National Committee. “That’s what we need.”
The Biden campaign has had a hand in preparing from former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, whose unlikely rise to the top tier of primary contenders arguably began when he tore into Pence for the perceived hypocrisy of being a “cheerleader for the porn-star presidency.” Buttigieg has known fellow Hoosier Pence for years and his personal debate style—consistent and studied to the point of rigidity—closely mirrors Pence’s own.
One former top-level Buttigieg campaign staffer told The Daily Beast that his inclusion in the Biden-Harris debate prep indicates a potential revival of that line of attack, highlighting the contradiction between Pence’s Christian faith and the actions of the president he serves.
“It’s obviously not a centerpiece—hello, COVID—but pointing out that the vice president is a homophobic Waylon Smithers is clearly a winning line,” the former staffer said, in reference to a character on The Simpsons derided on the show as a lickspittle. “She should use it.”
“He doesn’t seem to have any qualms about defending what many of us would consider indefensible,” Buttigieg told Indianapolis Monthly ahead of the debate, “even if it flies in the face of his own professed values.”
Pence himself, though obviously lacking in the showman skills that helped elevate his boss to the Oval Office, is a polished speaker who spent his pre-Congress career as a talk radio host, and has none of the self-discipline problems that torched Trump’s appearance at last week’s debate.
In his lone vice presidential debate with Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) in 2016, Pence was an effective straight man for the more dynamic Trump. He was an expert at refashioning some of Trump’s policies to fit the moment—he invented a Russian proverb to emphasize the ticket’s unwavering watch over Vladimir Putin’s Russia, despite Trump’s own fawning comments about the leader—and at calming anxious Christian conservatives that despite his running mate’s personal life, they walked the same path on morality.
“I believe it with all my heart, and I couldn't be more proud to be standing with a pro-life candidate in Donald Trump,” said Pence at the time.
Pence’s mock debate stand-in for Harris, former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, also played Kaine four years ago—which could indicate that Pence’s preparations are more about delivering a streamlined performance than trying to navigate his opponent’s mannerisms and prosecutorial background.
As one of the few reportedly uninfected members of the Trump administration’s upper echelons, Pence’s role will be even more important. He will have to, essentially, calm the anxious public about Trump’s cavalier attitude towards the virus, while emphasizing that not too long ago, Biden and Harris were on different sides of some major issues.
Undercutting that relationship could be the key to turning the night into a debate between the two people on the Democratic ticket, rather than between Harris and Pence.
“What Mike Pence will try to do is somehow subtly undercut Kamala,” Hillary Clinton said at a fundraiser with Harris last month. “She has to modulate her responses because we know there still is a double standard alive and well when it comes to women in politics.”