WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris are expected to take the debate stage Wednesday night against an extraordinary backdrop that has raised the stakes of an event that for decades has been a routine, inconsequential fixture of presidential elections.
No vice president has debated while the president is known to be sick and possibly still in the hospital. And never have two vice presidential nominees debated at a time when Americans are giving far more than cursory thought to how each might lead in the top job.
“Vice presidential debates oftentimes get a lot of attention at the moment, and then a few days later they’re forgotten,” presidential historian Michael Beschloss said. “But this year it may be different.”
The spotlight on the debate in Salt Lake City had already intensified after President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden’s chaotic showing last week in their initial debate and as the country grapples with a global pandemic and a slumping economy.
The president’s allies, in particular, were looking to Pence to make up for that 27 days before the election.
“He needs to deliver a very solid performance, and he needs to find a way to win,” an ally said.
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A national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday showed that Biden’s lead over the president jumped to 14 points after the debate and that voters said by 2-to-1 that Biden performed better than Trump.
In the weeks before Trump tested positive for the coronavirus and was hospitalized, Pence and Harris had spent hours preparing for their debate — poring over policy briefing books, workshopping responses to anticipated attacks and holding lengthy mock sessions.
Both spent time over the weekend preparing for Wednesday’s debate, which was still scheduled to take place in person. Harris was in Salt Lake City on Friday, while Pence, who was in Washington, is expected to travel to Utah on Monday.
They will be seated 12 feet apart, according to three people familiar with the planning, rather than the original 7 feet of separation.
Aides to Pence and Harris said that the president’s health doesn’t significantly alter their heavily prepared approaches to the debate but that it has forced them to rethink their tones.
For Harris that means criticizing Trump’s handling of the pandemic in a way that is sensitive to his battle with the virus himself.
And Pence now enters the debate having to defend Trump’s repeated downplaying of the pandemic — and flouting of public health recommendations — while Trump and a growing number of other Republicans are sick after having followed the White House’s lead.