Viewer's Guide: Virus response on stage with Pence, Harris

Cover Image
Photo credit Members of the production crew work on the stage near plexiglass barriers which will serve as a way to protect the spread of COVID-19 as preparations take place for the vice presidential debate at the University of Utah, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, in Salt Lake City. The vice presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., is scheduled for Oct. 7. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Mike Pence and Kamala Harris do not have a tough act to follow.

The vice presidential debate set for Wednesday night follows the disorderly prime-time spectacle last week that had viewers of President Donald Trump and Democratic rival Joe Biden’s matchup bemoaning the moderator’s inability to shut off a candidate’s microphone.

As vice president Pence has worked to level Trump’s roughshod style and steer his response to the coronavirus pandemic. He will face a U.S. senator known for sharp questioning who has made it clear she wants to invoke her prosecutorial chops on the debate stage.

The handling of the pandemic and the contraction of COVID-19 by the president, along with several others in the White House, will almost literally be center stage. Pence and Harris are expected to be separated by a plexiglass shield to reduce the risk of virus transmission.

The debate starting at 9 p.m. EDT at the University of Utah is the only matchup scheduled between Pence and Harris.

What to watch:

COVID-19

Expect Pence and Harris to have starkly different assessments of the way the Trump administration has responded to the virus that’s killed more than 210,000 Americans. Pence has led the White House’s coronavirus task force, taking a high-profile spot at White House briefings, projecting an aura of calm and empathy rarely made by his boss. Harris, the former California attorney general, is likely to cross-examine Pence on the early response to the virus, the Trump campaign’s decision to resume holding large rallies and the president’s frequently cavalier attitude toward the disease.

RACE

Before Harris became the first Black woman to appear on a major party’s presidential ticket, she had one of her most striking moments in the Democratic presidential primary when she questioned Biden for once opposing the federally mandated busing of students to desegregated schools. As she faces off with Pence, who is white, expect her to address Trump’s comments at the last debate where he demurred when was asked to condemn white supremacy, along with his remark that there were “very fine people” on both sides of a 2017 protest by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a counterprotester was killed.

SUPREME COURT FALLOUT

The GOP’s push to quickly fill a Supreme Court seat once held by the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg could energize voters who see abortion, health care and other major issues on the line. Pence has emphasized his conservative Christian beliefs and anti-abortion stance on the campaign trail and portrayed Democrats as a threat to religious freedom. Harris, a member of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, set to hold a hearing on Trump’s nominee, has been a staunch defender of abortion rights. A statement this week from two conservative justices raised new criticism of the court’s 2015 ruling legalizing same-sex marriage and suggested the court needs to revisit the decision. The move underlines liberals’ fears and conservatives’ excitement about the potential reshaping of the court. Harris has been a staunch defender of same-sex marriage. Pence, as Indiana governor in 2015, drew national attention for signing a law that allowed business owners to deny service to gay people for religious reasons.

FUTURE PROSPECTS

Pence is considered a potential successor to Trump and a likely 2024 presidential candidate. He brings executive experience as Indiana governor and vice president and would instantly be a leading contender if he jumps into the GOP race. Harris has only elevated her profile since joining the Biden ticket and is expected to mount another run for the presidency in the future. That could come as soon as 2024 as Biden hasn’t committed to running for a second term if he wins this year. Look for whether Pence and Harris set the stage for their own political ambitions.

GENDER DYNAMICS