WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Wednesday’s vice presidential debate has taken on an outsized and perhaps unprecedented significance, with questions about President Donald Trump’s health now looming over the U.S. election less than a month away.
Vice President Mike Pence’s face-off against Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat Joe Biden’s running mate, on Wednesday in Salt Lake City comes as the Trump campaign continues to reel from a COVID-19 outbreak that has infected the Republican president and a growing number of people in his inner circle.
The pressure on Pence, who often toils in Trump’s deep shadow, is great. Trump trails Biden by 10 percentage points nationally, according to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll, with voters faulting what they viewed as the president’s carelessness about the dangers of the new coronavirus.
Pence needs to show the public he is ready to step in as president if the situation requires, while also defending the Trump administration’s handling of a 7-month-old health crisis that has killed more than 210,000 Americans.
For her part, Harris, who has largely stayed out of the spotlight in recent weeks as Biden ramped up campaign travel, must demonstrate to voters that she, too, could assume the presidency if needed at some point in the 77-year-old Biden’s tenure should they win on Nov. 3.
Traditionally, the vice presidential debate is considered an afterthought to the three presidential debates, watched by fewer voters and viewed as almost irrelevant in terms of shifting public opinion.
“This debate is different,” said Christopher Devine, an expert on the vice presidency at the University of Dayton. “Some people may be worrying about Mike Pence and how he may perform if called upon. And there are questions about Joe Biden’s ability to stay healthy.”
Reflecting concerns over keeping both running mates virus-free, a plexiglass barrier will separate them at the debate venue on the campus of the University of Utah.
Pence and Harris will be seated more than 12 feet (3.7 m) apart on the stage, farther than the 7 feet (2 m) originally agreed on.
All debate attendees, including members of the media, will be required to get tested for COVID-19. The debates commission said anyone not wearing a mask would be “escorted out”.
Masks were also mandatory at the first presidential debate on Sept. 29, but some people, including members of Trump’s family, removed them.
Pence and Harris spent Tuesday in Utah preparing. Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has helped Harris with her prep, in part because of his familiarity with Pence’s record when he was governor of Indiana.
“Pete is from the Midwest like Pence and they have many of the same mannerisms and style, so it’s a natural fit,” said a Biden campaign official. “He also knows Pence and his policies well.”
Harris again tested negative for the virus, the campaign said on Tuesday. Pence also continues to test negative, his doctor said on Tuesday. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it was “safe” for Pence to take part in the debate because he was not a close contact of anyone sick with COVID-19, including the president.
SLOWING DEMOCRATIC MOMENTUM
Trump, 74, returned to the White House on Monday following a three-day stay at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center where he was treated for his illness. It remains uncertain when he will be able to resume campaign activities although he said on Tuesday that he intends to participate in the next scheduled debate with Biden on Oct. 15.
Pence will be charged with trying to slow the Biden-Harris momentum, something Trump was unable to do in his unruly debate in Cleveland.
An even-tempered communicator who once hosted a radio show while a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Pence can be more effective on a debate stage than Trump, said Michael Steel, who worked with Pence in the House when Steel was an aide to then-Speaker John Boehner.
“The vice president can make a more cogent and thoughtful case for the Trump administration’s record than almost anyone else,” Steel said. “He’s in a position to have a much stronger debate than the president.”
But, Steel added: “I don’t know how much that matters.”
Reuters/Ipsos polling has shown the presidential race to be relatively stable, with Biden consistently holding a lead nationally. More than 4 million Americans already have voted ahead of Election Day, according to the University of Florida, which tracks the early vote.
A Biden campaign official told Reuters the campaign was prepared for Pence to launch attacks on Harris suggesting she is to the left of the mainstream of the Democratic Party.
Harris, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, cemented her reputation as a skilled questioner at the 2018 hearings for now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
She has panned the administration’s coronavirus response, which is headed by Pence. On Wednesday, she will likely aim to renew those criticisms without attacking the recovering Trump personally.
“It’s a delicate balance,” Devine said. “Harris is probably better prepared than most, having been on the national stage before.”
(Reporting by Jeff Mason and James Oliphant; Additional reporting by Michael Martina and Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Peter Cooney and Sonya Hepinstall)