Updated October 6, 2020 - 9:25 pm
WASHINGTON — In the midst of a pandemic that has crippled the economy and changed how Americans interact with each other, Vice President Mike Pence and California U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris face off Wednesday night during the only vice presidential debate before the Nov. 3 election.
Voters will be looking at the running mates through the lens of their nominees’ age and health. President Donald Trump is battling the coronavirus with two co-morbidities, his age 74, and excess weight. Former Vice President Joe Biden, 77, would be the oldest man to be elected president. Pence is 61 and Harris is 55.
“They (vice presidential candidates) have to project a level of youthfulness because there’s no guarantee either of these guys will make it to the next term,” speech coach and communications specialist Ruth Sherman said.
Pence, a steady presence and familiar face in a chaotic White House, enters the stage as the GOP ticket’s poll numbers have been sinking after Trump’s dubious debate performance last week. Ken Khachigian, one-time speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, described Pence as “the raft in a sea of torment.”
Harris, the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica and first woman of color on a major party ticket, is not a familiar figure to many American voters. As a woman, Sherman offered, Harris will have to deal with a double standard that often discounts women for behavior rewarded in men.
For Sherman the question is: Will Harris, a former district attorney and California attorney general, “bring prosecutor Harris or will she bring future Vice President Harris” to the stage?
“Will she listen or will she jump right into prosecutor stance?” Sherman asked.
Divided by Plexiglas
The debate will take place at 6 p.m. at the University of Utah. Pence and Harris will sit 12 feet apart, with a Plexiglas partition between them. There was no such partition during the Trump-Biden debate when it is possible Trump already had contracted the virus.
While Pence and Trump spent time together before Trump tested positive, the vice president and second lady Karen Pence have been testing negative daily.
On Tuesday, the vice president’s office sent out a memo written by Pence’s doctor, Jesse Schonau, that noted Pence was traveling for three days last week, that he stayed at his official residence at the U.S. Naval Observatory for three days after Trump tested positive and was not in “close contact” with Trump or other senior administration officials who tested positive last week.
Schonau concluded that Pence “is encouraged to go about his normal activities and does not need to quarantine.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield later sent out a letter repeating that Pence and Trump did not have “close contact” — standing within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes — and that it was safe for him to participate in the debate.
Preview of talking points
A sample of likely exchanges can be seen from talking points made by their supporters.
As the head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Pence “is very strong at promoting the president’s accomplishments and that of the administration,” said Marc Lotter, a former Pence press secretary who’s now director of strategic communications for the Trump campaign.
Lotter added, “I also have no doubt that he will prosecute the case of (Biden’s) 47 years of failed leadership.”
Dan Newman, a one-time Harris adviser, said “The challenge to her is to pierce that smarmy smooth talking veil and calming smooth talk that for a casual listener could sound reasonable.”
Newman also called Pence “a primary enabler and central force behind the worst presidency in our memory.”
In similar spirit, Lotter offered, “Kamala Harris is so far to the radical left she’s even more left than Bernie Sanders.”
Both Newman and Sherman agreed that Pence’s past work as a talk radio host will serve him well.
”He brings that calmness, that measured delivery and his beautiful speaking voice,” said Sherman “with that sort of Midwestern aw-shucks personality” and “he can speak without taking breath for a long time.”
Harris has a more casual style, said Sherman, recalling her at Democratic primary debates “leaning on the podium, almost so we could say, ‘OK, you’re from California.’ ”
“Harris tends to be hot on the screen, and there are reasons that she flamed out before the first primary,” said Khachigian.
“Let’s put it this way,” Khachigian added, “if I were still involved in presidential politics, I would have worked harder to make her an albatross around Biden’s neck.”
Newman had a different take. Pence, he said, “has a huge challenge. That is, he’s defending the indefensible.”