Vice President Mike Pence and his Democratic challenger, California Sen. Kamala Harris, are poised to meet for a debate that will offer starkly different visions for a country confronting escalating crises. The faceoff Wednesday night in Salt Lake City is the most highly anticipated vice presidential debate in recent memory. It will unfold while President Donald Trump recovers at the White House after testing positive last week for the coronavirus and spending several days in the hospital, a serious setback for his campaign that adds pressure on Pence to defend the administration’s handling of the pandemic.
For Harris, the debate is her highest-profile opportunity to vocalize how the Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, would stabilize the U.S., especially when it comes to resolving the pandemic and addressing racial injustice. She will be able to explain her views on law enforcement, an area in which she’s viewed warily by some progressives, given her past as a prosecutor.
Ultimately, the debate is a chance for voters to decide whether Pence and Harris are in a position to step into the presidency at a moment’s notice. It’s hardly a theoretical question as the 74-year-old Trump combats the virus, and Biden, at 77, would become the oldest person to become president if he’s elected. While the debate will likely cover a range of topics, the virus will be at the forefront.
Pence and Harris will appear on stage exactly 12.25 feet (3.7 meters) apart separated by plexiglass barriers. Anyone in the small audience who refuses to wear a mask will be asked to leave.
Pence, who was with Trump and others last week who have since tested positive, has faced questions about whether he should be at the debate at all. The vice president has repeatedly tested negative for the virus, and his staff and doctors insist he does not need to quarantine under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
The CDC defines risky close contact as being within 6 feet (1.8 meters) of an infected person for at least 15 minutes starting from two days before the onset of symptoms or a positive test. Pence’s team objected to Harris’ request for plexiglass barriers, arguing it was medically unnecessary. But the Commission on Presidential Debates had already agreed to the barriers, and Pence’s aides said their presence wouldn’t dissuade him from attending the event.
Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, said there is zero risk of the vice president pulling out of the debate over the plexiglass spat. He said Pence will be there because it’s too important for the American people. The hesitancy seems to be on other side, he added.
Sabrina Singh, a spokesperson for Harris, said the senator “will be at the debate, respecting the protections that the Cleveland Clinic has put in place to promote safety for all concerned. The Cleveland Clinic serves as a health adviser to the Commission on Presidential Debates.
Despite the early sparring, the debate is unlikely to be a repeat of the chaotic debate between Trump and Biden last week. Pence is eager to seize on Harris and Biden’s liberal policies, but it may be difficult to shift the conversation away from the Republican administration’s uneven handling of the pandemic.
Pence serves as chair of the president’s coronavirus task force, which has failed to implement a comprehensive national strategy even as Trump himself recovers from the disease and the national death toll surges past 210,000 with no clear end in sight.
Biden has raised questions about whether he will participate in his next scheduled debate with Trump, telling reporters on Tuesday: I think if he still has COVID, then we shouldn’t have a debate. The vice president is a 61-year-old former Indiana governor and ex-radio host, an evangelical Christian known for his folksy charm and unwavering loyalty to Trump.
Harris is a 55-year-old California senator, the daughter of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother. She is also a former prosecutor whose pointed questioning of Trump’s appointees and court nominees and cool charm on the campaign trail made her a Democratic star.
She will make history as the first Black woman to appear in a vice presidential debate. Democrats hope the historic nature of her candidacy will help energize key groups of likely Democratic voters African Americans and young people, in particular who have shown less excitement for Biden. It’s unclear how aggressive the candidates will be with each other.