President Trump’s hospitalization with the coronavirus has put this week’s Vice Presidential Debate in an extraordinary spotlight, putting pressure on Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris to use this forum to reassure an anxious public they are prepared and qualified for as president.
The diagnosis of Mr Trump with a potentially fatal virus – and the fact that he is 74 years old and his Democratic rival, Joseph R. Biden Jr. is 77 – was a stark reminder that either Mr Pence or Ms. Harris could become president himself, as opposed to only leading candidates for nomination in 2024 and beyond.
Depending on how quickly Mr. Trump recovers, his condition is could also force the cancellation of the two remaining debates between Mr Trump and Mr Biden. In that case, Wednesday’s 90-minute session would be the final debate of this presidential election season and the last chance for both parties to reach a large audience.
This could be of particular concern to Mr Trump, whose recalcitrant debate last week turned voters in some key states against him.
Raphael J. Sonenshein, the executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University in Los Angeles, said that any other year, a debate between two runmates is little more than a “political thought.” The vice-presidential game in Salt Lake City on Wednesday would be very different, he said, “given the age and vulnerability of the candidates” running for president.
“The vice presidential debate might be the only thing that happens,” said Sonenshein, who was on a panel of questioners for Ms. Harris’s 2016 Senate debate.
There were some questions about whether Mr. Pence should even attend as he was exposed to a White House with new positive tests arriving daily. “He was sitting in a sea of people with Covid,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, an infectious disease expert at Harvard University. “There is no way he should go anywhere.”
Jason Miller, a senior adviser to Mr. Trump, turned down the suggestion that Mr. Pence skip the debate, which will be held at the University of Utah. Mr Pence has so far tested negative for the coronavirus and the two candidates will be 12 feet apart, an increase from the originally proposed seven feet.
“I have no concerns at all,” Miller said on NBC’s Meet the Press program as he discussed the safety of Mr. Pence’s participation in the debate. “We are in a campaign. We still have a month. We see Joe Biden and Kamala Harris out there campaigning. “
Vice-presidential competitions are rarely decisive in presidential elections, especially those with such a dominant presence as Mr Trump on the ballot. However, that debate is taking place in the midst of a crisis: a president in the hospital infected with a virus that has already killed over 200,000 Americans and a series of unanswered questions about the severity of his illness, his prognosis, and when – or if – he will be able to return to the campaign path. The choice is now a month away.
Polls since early summer have shown that Mr Trump is lagging behind Mr Biden, adding to the importance of these type of mass attention events.
Mr Pence and Mrs Harris have so far been largely dwarfed by the competition between Mr Trump and Mr Biden. However, it appears that Mr Pence will be the face of the campaign for the time being, while his flag bearer will not be publicly visible.
But Mr Pence, who is standing up for Mr Trump, could work for the good of the Democrats for the 2016 Vice Presidential debate, according to Jennifer Palmieri, a senior adviser to 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and a coach for fellow campaigner, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine.
“It’s so hard for the Biden-Harris ticket to get a clean attempt at delivering a clear message because Trump is taking so much oxygen,” she said. “You have to take every opportunity.”
Mr. Pence has several advantages. After four years at Mr Trump’s side, he has extensive experience of the key political and political challenges that will arise on Wednesday, particularly those related to the virus and the economy. And Mr Pence went through one such debate in 2016 where he checked all the boxes of an effective candidate # 2: he was a diligent defender of Mr Trump and a relentless attacker of Ms. Clinton.
In contrast, Ms. Harris has only been in Washington since 2017 and marginalized as a Democrat in the Republican-controlled Senate. She participated in debates when she ran for the California Senator and Attorney General – much smaller matters against opponents with less ambition and talent than Mr. Pence.
For Mr Pence, this is a very different terrain than what he navigated in 2016. Mr Trump has been besieged by questions about his handling of the Covid-19 crisis and the extent to which his own behavior put himself and others at risk, and now that the pandemic has gripped the White House and some Republican circles.
“It was right on the table in the presidential debate and it will be right on the table in the vice-presidential debate because it’s important to everyone,” Kaine said in an interview. “Because Pence was asked to take the lead. And now because the president who undermined all the science and said it was a hoax or not a big problem has now been diagnosed. “
Mr. Pence will have an extra burden to make the most of this moment as Mr. Biden leads many polls and the opportunities to change the flight path of the race are dwindling.
Mr. Pence, 61, is a former Indiana governor and served 12 years in Congress. Ms. Harris, 55, was the California attorney general and district attorney in San Francisco before she was elected to the Senate.
The two bring distinctly different styles to this debate. Mr. Pence, in his session with Mr. Kaine and during an earlier debate when he ran for governor of Indiana, proved to be a calm and disciplined figure who was difficult to annoy and, due to his easy demeanor, was unexpectedly adept at continuing the attack .
“There’s a reason people question Hillary Clinton’s trustworthiness – and it’s because they’re paying attention,” Pence said in his controversial debate (by 2016 standards, at least) with Kaine.
He speaks quickly and seldom leaves a space between sentences for an opponent to jump into. “He’s a very consistent, lithe, regulated debater,” said John D. Podesta, who chaired Ms. Clinton’s campaign in 2016, a radio host taught him to be well prepared. He will be the anti-Trump in this debate. It will be the opposite of what you saw last Tuesday. “
“He will come to you,” said Mr Podesta. “He will come well prepared. He can attack. It will be very modulated and silky. “
Ms. Harris has been an intense and effective interlocutor as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. She increased her shares in Democrats by aggressively questioning Attorney General William P. Barr, among others.
In a debate, she can be faded and methodical, staring at a lectern scribbling notes while waiting for her turn to move before attacking.
“Steve, I think you really shouldn’t fall short of the dignity of this debate or the office we’re looking for,” said Ms. Harris when Steve Cooley, the Los Angeles District Attorney and her opponent in the 2010 California Attorney General race, She failed to seek the death penalty in a murder case as a district attorney in San Francisco.
“She will be prepared with certain specific, tested statements or lines,” Cooley said in an interview, recalling their meeting in 2010. He said this was shown in the Democratic debates when Ms. Harris told Mr. Biden about his taping attack by the opposition against Busing.
“It will be well written,” he said. “I don’t think if she gets into an area where she’s not well-written, she will either.”
Jeff Weaver, a senior adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders, called her a tough debater. “Because of her background as a prosecutor,” he said, “she is someone who is good at handling presentations as you would in a courtroom.”
“She’s better on the offensive,” added Weaver. “When she’s on the offensive, she scores better than when she’s on defense.”
Even before Mr. Trump went to hospital, Ms. Harris said that a Vice Presidential Debate is fundamentally different from the main competitions in that she has to master not only her own records, but also those of Mr. Biden, Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence.
The Trump campaign has long sought to see Mr. Biden as a stand-in for the “radical left” and make Ms. Harris, who would be the first black woman to serve as vice president, real power in a Biden White house.
Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster, said the debate would raise the awareness of both candidates. But in a campaign of such extraordinary stakes, he said the real question for voters will be whether Mr Trump deserves a second term.
“So much is happening every day and every week at the moment that I have to think that the vice-presidential debate will be forgotten by election day,” he said.
Sydney Ember and Donald G. McNeil Jr. contributed to the coverage.