WASHINGTON, Wash. — Anyone looking for Trump-style fireworks from tonight’s vice-presidential debate is likely to be disappointed.
But it will still likely be one of the most watched presidential undercard debates in recent history.
Vice-President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris will be seated when they face off, at a distance, at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
They are also expected to be divided by Plexiglas barriers, although the Pence campaign raised objections to that idea late Tuesday.
Experts expect the prosecutorial Harris, a former California attorney general, to take the fight to Pence, especially when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pence’s job will be to radiate rationality and common sense as a counterpoint to the daily chaos of President Donald Trump.
Voters on both sides of the partisan divide will be paying more attention to the running mates than they have in the past, not least because of the age and health of the presidential candidates themselves.
Democratic challenger Joe Biden is 77, and the Trump campaign has done its best to depict him as a frail old man with neither the stamina nor the smarts to be commander-in-chief.
The 74-year-old Trump, on the other hand, tested positive Friday for COVID-19, and has been trying mightily ever since to depict himself as a president at the peak of his power.
As a result, both Harris and Pence are under pressure to demonstrate they could take over the top job, said Mitchell McKinney, director of the Political Communication Institute at the University of Missouri.
“Is Kamala Harris capable and ready to be president? She has to answer that question,” McKinney said.
“But now, that question is not just on her side of the table, but for both of these candidates, with the President’s recent health concerns.”
Reminders of the pandemic will be everywhere, from a face mask-clad studio audience to Plexiglas barriers and the nearly four metres separating the vice-president, the California senator and moderator Susan Page.
Harris is expected to deploy her clinical, prosecutorial style against Pence, whose position atop the much-maligned White House coronavirus task force will ensure COVID-19 is a dominant topic.
For his part, the vice-president, whose retiring political style is diametrically opposed to that of his boss, will need to demonstrate there’s at least one adult in the White House, McKinney said.
That mission will be helped by the format ⏤ a sit-down, tabletop affair that McKinney described as a “chat” debate.
COVID-19 has been running rampant through the West Wing in the days since Trump himself tested positive last week before spending three chaotic days at Walter Reed National Military Health Center.
That hospital stay, which produced more questions than answers about the president’s health, culminated Monday in a theatrical, made-for-TV return to the White House, complete with a breathy, unmasked salute from atop the Truman Balcony.
“Don’t let it dominate you,” Trump said in a video posted to Twitter minutes later, seemingly oblivious to the mounting death toll or to the number of White House staff who tested positive in his absence.
“Don’t be afraid of it.”
Trump continued to shrug off the crisis Tuesday, pulling the plug on congressional efforts to negotiate a new economic stimulus package and demanding the effort be tabled until after the election.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 7, 2020.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press