Their showdown comes with the highest stakes for a vice presidential debate in recent memory, in part because President Donald Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis has made it unclear if and how additional presidential debates will take place.
It will also mark a historic moment, as Harris becomes the first Black and South Asian woman to participate in a general election presidential campaign debate. Pence and Harris share tickets with two of the oldest men to run for president — the 74-year-old Trump and the 77-year-old Democratic nominee, Joe Biden — putting an extra emphasis on their roles as the second in command.
Harris’ challenge on coronavirus
Trump has tried to cast his Covid diagnosis and supposed recovery as a bonus. In his telling, he’s a fearless leader who took on the virus and triumphed — setting a model for bravery in the face of a pandemic.
He’s made no mention of those in his inner circle who’ve fallen ill, nor the others on the White House staff — political and nonpartisan professionals — who are sick now. Empathy for the more than 210,000 Americans to die from the disease, and their families, has also been absent from his public statements.
For Harris, the challenge is to use this massive stage and draw a line — clear enough for anyone to see and impossible to ignore — from Trump’s handling of the pandemic as President to the growing fiasco inside his administration.
She must do this while the President’s own prognosis remains unknown. And even if, as Biden said on Monday night, his infection is largely the result of his own refusal to follow standard safety procedures, personal broadsides against him while he is battling the virus could carry some potential risk.
Pence needs to project calm
It has been a chaotic week for the Trump campaign, punctuated by the President himself testing positive for the virus and spending three days in the hospital but beginning with a frenzied debate between the President and Biden.
Pence’s goals in Wednesday night’s debate are to project a calm that Trump was unable to signal last week, while defending the administration’s handling of the pandemic and delivering the Trump campaign’s messaging that the virus should not dominate American life.
It’s a difficult task: More than 210,000 Americans have died from the virus, small businesses across the country have been decimated and the prospect of more economic stimulus for Americans was rejected on Tuesday evening when the President urged Republicans to walk away from negotiations with Democrats, tanking the stock market.
But Pence, according to people who know him well or have debated him in the past, is one of the most skilled politicians at redirecting a question to a topic he wants to focus on.
“Mike is a good debater,” said John Gregg, an Indiana Democrat who went to law school with Pence and ran against him for governor in 2012. “On certain questions that he gets, if he doesn’t want to answer it, he is just a master at not answering it and pivoting to talking points.”