It is always about who will be a heartbeat away from the presidency. But this time, that applies more than ever.
The incumbent, Mike Pence, and the California senator Kamala Harris are set to take part in a vice-presidential debate in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Wednesday with both under pressure to show their readiness to step up to the top job.
The presidential race has been upended again, this time by 74-year-old Donald Trump’s infection with the coronavirus, focusing minds on the potential for Pence to take over even before election day on 3 November. The Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, is even older at 77, raising the prospect that if elected, he might not serve two terms but rather pass the torch to Harris in 2024.
“The stakes of the debate just got much higher,” said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “Typically, vice-presidential debates don’t really make much of a difference and aren’t very well viewed – the one in 2016 was only watched by 37m people, a much smaller audience than the three presidential debates.
“But now, given what happened with President Trump, it really increases the stakes of this debate because of the health of the candidates. You have a 74-year-old, a 77-year-old and so these two have to be ready to step in at a moment’s notice.”
Trump left hospital on Monday night, but the two remaining presidential debates between Trump and Biden later this month remain in serious doubt. “This may be the last debate of the cycle and another reason why it’s extra important,” Kall said.
Pence has been rehearsing for the debate with Pam Bondi, the former attorney general of Florida, playing the role of Harris, the Axios website reported. Harris has been practicing with Pete Buttigieg, a fellow Democratic primary candidate, standing in for Pence – both men are from Indiana.
The pair will debate with a plexiglass shield between them, according to the Associated Press, a precaution requested by the Biden-Harris campaign. And whereas Biden and Trump were separated by 7ft, Pence and Harris will be seated 12ft apart as an extra precaution. In another sense, they are worlds apart.
Pence is a socially conservative Christian evangelical man from the midwest, Harris a progressive mixed race woman from California. Her past career as a criminal prosecutor, and a tormentor of Trump allies in congressional hearings, mean she is widely seen as a formidable debater.
Kall said: “Most people think that Kamala Harris is going to win. So just like Biden benefited from low expectations in the first presidential debate, Mike Pence is going to be aided by that. He’s pretty familiar with policy and facts. He’s not going to win any personality contests but he’s going to deliver a solid performance over 90 minutes. He has a good chance to prevail as the underdog.”
He added: “In some ways, just like Joe Biden, Kamala Harris is a very inconsistent debater. In the Democratic primary, she did great in the first one in Miami in June 2019, and that rocketed her up to the top tier. But then she was never able to re-create that magic in subsequent debates.
“Her kryptonite was Tulsi Gabbard. They got into exchanges where Gabbard got the best and got under her skin a little bit and so that’s something that Pence could review video and try to emulate, although that may not fit with his style or personality.”
But other analysts remain confident that Harris has the perfect skill set to put the Trump administration on trial over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has cost more than 205,000 lives, and an economic slump that put millions out of work.
Tara Setmayer, a former Republican communications director on Capitol Hill, said: “Given Kamala Harris’s background as a prosecutor and the way in which he is an able questioner, I think that you will see her prosecute the case against this administration and against Mike Pence well. I don’t know that Mike Pence knows what’s about to hit him from Kamala Harris.”
Before the vice-presidential debate in 2008, commentators warned Biden to avoid appearing condescending or patronising towards Sarah Palin, the first woman on a Republican ticket. Pence will be watched closely for any hint of sexism or racism, as will Republicans in their attempts to spin what happens.
Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist based in Columbia, South Carolina, said: “That is how they govern themselves and that’s their version of campaigning and speaking to a certain group of people in this country.
“But the one thing they can’t do is run away from the obvious failures of this administration and the responsibility that they have on their hands as it relates to this pandemic and all of the challenges, including the economic challenges, that come along with this pandemic.”
But Mike Murphy, a Republican fundraiser and businessman in Indiana, denied that Pence would be mean spirited or seek to play identity politics. “He’s not that way,” he said.
“I think he will keep it to the issues and promote the Trump-Pence record. He’ll be very civil. He won’t be name-calling. There’s no reason to be misogynistic or racist because it’s the vice-presidential nominee of each party, not an Asian-Jamaican woman versus a white guy – he doesn’t see it that way.”
Highlighting the fact that Harris could succeed Biden and become the 47th president was fair game, Murphy added. “It’s not a race or gender thing, it’s about political philosophy. Kamala Harris is much more close to the socialistic line than even Biden is; he is a moderate compared to Harris.
“It’s fair for Pence to make the point that if you vote for Biden and he does not complete his term, then you end up with Harris so you’ve got to be prepared for that. It’s more liberal or socialist versus free market philosophy than it is about race or gender.”