Tonight’s vice presidential debate will feature several firsts. Sen. Kamala Harris will be the first Black and South Asian American woman in a national debate – and it will also be the first debate in which the participants are shielded by plexiglass.
But that aside, the debate should feel somewhat like a return to “normal” after the circus last week in Cleveland. Tonight’s event will feature two polished communicators who know how to stay rigorously on message.
Vice President Mike Pence gave a smooth performance at the VP debate in 2016, brushing aside Sen. Tim Kaine’s dogged attacks and often shaking his head and mouthing the word “No” in response.
Pence can be expected to do what he did then — and has been doing ever since — praising President Donald Trump and seeking to make him as palatable as possible to a broader swath of the electorate.
For Harris, the VP debate is a culmination of her brief tenure on the national stage. Harris, a former prosecutor who was elected to the Senate in 2016, has become famous for her pointed cross-examinations of Trump administration figures in Senate hearings.
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As a presidential candidate, she asked voters to envision her eviscerating Trump on the debate stage. Her actual performances in 2019 — when she was up against a gaggle of other Democrats — could be uneven, however. She was fearless when she attacked Joe Biden on busing, but she also had some awkward moments, as when she tried to corner Sen. Elizabeth Warren into calling on Twitter to delete Trump’s account.
On the issues, Harris and Pence will be asked about many of the same topics that Biden and Trump covered last week. But on the Supreme Court, each may want to delve deeper into abortion and Roe v. Wade.
Harris will, of course, have a key role in the confirmation hearings of Amy Coney Barrett. She has already shown more eagerness to discuss Roe v. Wade than Biden, who has tended to frame the Supreme Court battle almost entirely in terms of the Affordable Care Act.
Trump, meanwhile, ducked the abortion issue entirely at last week’s debate, challenging Biden’s claim that Roe v. Wade was “on the ballot.” “There’s nothing happening there,” Trump said. “You don’t know her view on Roe v. Wade.”
Pence, who is committed to the pro-life cause, may want to handle the question a little more directly.
Pence will also likely try to repeat Trump’s tactic of tying the Biden-Harris ticket to the left wing of the Democratic Party. And with Harris, he will have a little more to work with, as Harris endorsed Medicare for All and the Green New Deal during her presidential campaign.
Pence’s role as head of the White House coronavirus task force will give Harris a clean angle to attack the administration’s pandemic response. The debate will also be the first since Trump tested positive for COVID-19, which has put that issue back at the top of the agenda.
The debate will take place at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, and will get underway at 9 p.m. Eastern, 6 p.m. Pacific. Susan Page, the Washington bureau chief of USA Today, will be the moderator.
The candidates and the moderator will be seated 12-feet apart, as the Commission on Presidential Debates has imposed new rules after several members of the Trump team tested positive.