President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis and brief hospitalization has upped the ante for Wednesday night’s high-stakes vice presidential debate in Salt Lake City.
Sen. Kamala D. Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, already was seen as something of a president-in-waiting for nominee Joseph R. Biden, 77, who referred to himself as a “transition” candidate earlier this year when pressed about his age.
Vice President Mike Pence now will have to answer not only for the president’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis but also for its spread throughout the White House and the uncertainty surrounding Mr. Trump’s health.
“The stakes in this election have never been higher. The choice has never been clearer,” Mr. Pence said Monday as he headed to Utah. “I look forward to the opportunity to take our case to the American people for four more years.”
Mr. Trump’s doctors said he wasn’t “out of the woods yet” but his health appeared to be improving Tuesday, which likely dialed back some debate questions about Mr. Pence stepping into the job.
Still, the line of succession will be on the minds of Americans as they tune into the prime-time debate.
As will be the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic, which has resulted in more than 7.4 million coronavirus cases in the U.S. and contributed to the deaths of more than 210,000 Americans.
Those are among more than 35 million cases and 1 million deaths worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Because of the COVID-19 outbreak at the White House, Mr. Pence released a doctor’s memo Tuesday vouching for his good health and verifying that his daily coronavirus tests were all negative.
Mr. Pence traveled Tuesday through Thursday of last week but stayed home on Friday, Saturday and Sunday as a precaution.
The doctors said Mr. Pence is not considered a close contact of the president or other White House cases, given the course of their infections, and does not need to quarantine.
The Harris and Pence teams were haggling Tuesday over walling off the candidates with Plexiglas dividers on the stage as part of safety measures.
Mr. Pence’s staff said the Plexiglas divider was unnecessary after other precautions, such as a 12-foot buffer between the debaters, already in place.
After saying earlier in the evening that it would not accept the transparent screens, the Pence team reportedly relented after a meeting with the Commission on Presidential Debates and the Harris team.
Mr. Pence and Ms. Harris also are undergoing daily COVID-19 tests.
When it gets down to the business of actually trading jabs in the debate, Republican consultant Keith Naughton said Ms. Harris will play it safe. She won’t want to rock the boat with Mr. Biden leading in most polls.
“I think she’ll want to be calm and magnanimous,” he said. “Pence isn’t aggressive at all like Trump.”
Before the debate, Ms. Harris said the biggest thing she is preparing for “what is I think very likely to be a series of untruths.”
“I don’t necessarily want to be the fact-checker,” she said. “At the same time, depending on how far he goes with whatever he does he’s going to have to be accountable for what he says.”
Four years ago, Mr. Pence dutifully downplayed or deflected when asked about some of Mr. Trump’s more provocative statements and proposals, even as 2016 Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Tim Kaine interrupted him at least 70 times.
Deb Nelson, who chairs the Hanover/Old Lyme Town Democrats in New Hampshire, said the pressure will be on Mr. Pence to turn in a solid performance after the off-the-rails debate between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden last week in Cleveland.
“I mean, frankly, from the minute she was named to the ticket, people have been anticipating this debate,” Ms. Nelson said. “She’s going to go after Pence and I don’t think he’s going to know what hit him.”
She said Mr. Pence, known for his stoic style and unquestioning loyalty to Mr. Trump, reminds her of one of the cardboard cutouts that have been “attending” sporting events during the coronavirus pandemic as a substitute for actual fans.
“I feel like that’s Pence. He could be a robot,” she said.
While Democrats certainly aren’t fans of Mr. Pence, the former congressman — who described himself as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf” during his talk radio days — has provided an effective bridge for some elements of the GOP base that were wary of Mr. Trump four years ago.
“Mike Pence is a policy wonk with a smile,” said Shawn Steel, a Republican National Committee member from California.
Mr. Pence has been leading the White House coronavirus task force and has won bipartisan praise from governors who aren’t necessarily the biggest fans of Mr. Trump or his response to the pandemic.
Mr. Steel predicted that Ms. Harris, a senator from his home state, will have something of a reverse-fine wine effect on the American people, calling her “inauthentic” and “a bit of a confused person.”
“The more you see of her, the less you will be impressed,” he said. “She doesn’t have widespread affection by Democrats because she’s as close to an empty-suit politician as you have in California.”
Mr. Steel pointed to her flubbing recent shout-outs involving deceased rappers Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. as an example of ham-fisted efforts to show how “relevant and cool and hip she is.”
Ms. Harris was something of a policy chameleon during her own presidential bid. She equivocated multiple times on the government-run “Medicare for all” proposal that was pushed by Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont before backing away and rolling out her health plan that was immediately panned on all sides.
“She doesn’t have any philosophical core,” Mr. Steel said.
Pete Buttigieg, the former presidential candidate who has tangled with Mr. Pence over issues in their home state of Indiana, has been standing in for the vice president in some of the debate prep.
“I don’t envy the job he’s going to have to do,” Mr. Buttigieg said during a recent appearance on Fox News. “You’ve got a professed Christian who’s going to be in the position of defending the character of a president who got caught sending hush money to a porn star.”
Mr. Pence enlisted former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi to stand in during debate for Ms. Harris, who served as California attorney general.
Ms. Bondi said the vice president is prepared for a tough opponent on the debate stage.
“She’s a career prosecutor. So prosecutors can debate and can debate well,” Ms. Bondi said on Fox News. “She can pour over briefing books all day long to learn about policies but he has lived them for the past three-and-a-half years.”
Though sometimes regarded as a sideshow, the vice presidential debate has offered some memorable moments in recent years.
Mr. Biden himself squared off against Sarah Palin, then a relatively little-known Alaska governor, in 2008.
Mrs. Palin held her own on the national stage in a performance that followed several flubbed television interviews after Republican presidential nominee John McCain plucked her out of obscurity to be on the ticket.
Mrs. Palin’s friendly “Can I call you Joe?” overture during their pre-debate handshake reportedly came about because she could not avoid referring to the then-senator as “O’Biden” in debate prep.
Mr. Biden gave former President Barack Obama’s campaign a shot in the arm with an aggressive performance in 2012 against then-Rep. Paul Ryan after Mr. Obama’s lackluster showing against Mitt Romney in the opening presidential debate that year.
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