As the coronavirus sweeps through the upper reaches of government, Republican Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic challenger Kamala Harris faced off Wednesday night in a debate highlighting the parties’ sharply conflicting visions for a nation in crisis.
The candidates were separated by plexiglass barriers in an auditorium where any guest who refused to wear a face mask was to be asked to leave, an extraordinary backdrop for the only vice presidential debate of 2020.
Ultimately, the prime-time meeting was a chance for voters to decide whether Pence or Harris, a U.S. senator from California, is ready to assume the duties of the presidency before the end of the next term. It’s hardly a theoretical question: President Donald Trump, 74, is recovering from the coronavirus, and 77-year-old Joe Biden has not been infected but would be the oldest president ever.
For those reasons and more, the debate at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City shaped up as the most meaningful vice presidential debate in recent memory. It came at a precarious moment for the Republicans in particular, with growing concern that Trump’s position is weakening as more than a dozen senior officials across the White House, the Pentagon and inside his campaign are infected with the virus or in quarantine.
Trailing in polls, Trump and Pence have no time to lose; Election Day is less than four weeks away, and millions of Americans are already casting ballots.
Before Harris said a word, she made history by becoming the first Black woman to stand on a vice presidential debate stage. The night offered her a prime opportunity to energize would-be voters who have shown only modest excitement about Biden, a lifelong politician with a mixed record on race and criminal justice, particularly in his early years in the Senate.
Harris, 55, is 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 helped make her a Democratic star.
Pence 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. And while he is Trump’s biggest public defender, the vice president does not share the president’s brash tone or undisciplined style.
Just eight days ago, Trump set the tone for the opening presidential debate, which was perhaps the ugliest in modern history. Wednesday’s affair was expected to be far more respectful.
Harris’ team predicted she would focus on Trump’s yearlong efforts to downplay the pandemic, the fact that many schools are still closed and Trump’s declaration this week that he would end talks on a fresh coronavirus economic relief package until after the election.
Harris also had the chance to explain her views on law enforcement, an area in which she’s irked some progressives, given her past as a prosecutor.
Meanwhile, Pence hoped to highlight the administration’s economic record and attempt to portray the Democratic ticket as beholden to the far-left wing of her party. The vice president and Trump’s allies have condemned liberals for embracing a government run health care system known as “Medicare for All” and sweeping environmental reforms to combat climate change called the “Green New Deal.” Biden opposes both plans in favor of more moderate steps that would still be among the most significant changes for health care and environmental policy in the modern era.
Pence was joined in the debate hall by several guests, including two designed to highlight Trump’s “law and order” message against protest violence: Flora Westbrooks’ Minneapolis hair salon was burned down in May during protests over George Floyd’s death at the hands of police, and Ann Marie Dorn is the widow of a retired St. Louis police captain who was shot to death in June after a violent night of protests there.
While the debate covered a range of topics, the virus was at the forefront.
Republished with permission from The Associated Press.