2020 Election

Everything You Need to Know About the Pence, Harris VP Debate

The debate starting at 9 p.m. EDT at the University of Utah is the only matchup scheduled between Pence and Harris

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Mike Pence and Kamala Harris do not have a tough act to follow.

The vice presidential debate set for Wednesday night follows the disorderly prime-time spectacle last week that had viewers of President Donald Trump and Democratic rival Joe Biden’s matchup bemoaning the moderator’s inability to shut off a candidate’s microphone.

As vice president Pence has worked to level Trump’s roughshod style and steer his response to the coronavirus pandemic. He will face a U.S. senator known for sharp questioning who has made it clear she wants to invoke her prosecutorial chops on the debate stage.

The handling of the pandemic and the contraction of COVID-19 by the president, along with several others in the White House, will almost literally be center stage. Pence and Harris are expected to be separated by a plexiglass shield to reduce the risk of virus transmission.

What you need to know:

WHEN AND WHERE IS THE DEBATE?

The only matchup scheduled between Pence and Harris will take place at 9 p.m. ET at the University of Utah's Kingsbury Hall in Salt Lake City. The 90-minute debate will be divided into nine 10-minute segments without commercial breaks.

HOW TO WATCH THE VICE PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE

To watch the vice presidential debate online, click here.

The debate will be aired on major networks and cable news channels. People can also watch via subscription streaming services like Hulu with Live TV, Sling TV and FuboTV and on YouTube.

MSNBC will begin special coverage at 8 p.m. ET. NBC News' coverage will begin at 9 p.m. ET with Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie, Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell.

WHO IS MODERATING?

Susan Page, USA Today's Washington bureau chief, will moderate. Page has covered six presidential administrations and 10 presidential elections. She is the first print reporter selected by the Commission on Presidential Debates as a solo moderator.

WILL IT BE SAFE?

Less than two weeks ago, an unmasked Pence attended the now infamous White House Rose Garden ceremony that is widely suspected to be the “superspreader” event that infected at least eight attendees, including Trump himself.

A case could be made that Pence should be in quarantine, not at a University of Utah debate hall.

Acknowledging the health concerns, organizers agreed to separate the candidates, who will not be required to wear masks, with a plexiglass shield. The candidates and the moderator will all be seated exactly 12.25 feet (3.7 meters) away from one another. No handshakes or physical greetings are allowed.

Organizers report that a “small number” of ticketed guests will be inside the hall. Anyone who refuses to wear a mask besides the candidates and moderator will be removed.

We usually focus on political risks, but there are legitimate physical risks at play.

HOW WILL PENCE DEFEND THE WHITE HOUSE'S HANDLING OF THE PANDEMIC?

Expect Pence and Harris to have starkly different assessments of the way the Trump administration has responded to the virus that’s killed more than 210,000 Americans.

Pence has led the White House’s coronavirus task force, taking a high-profile spot at White House briefings, projecting an aura of calm and empathy rarely made by his boss. Harris, the former California attorney general, is likely to cross-examine Pence on the early response to the virus, the Trump campaign’s decision to resume holding large rallies and the president’s frequently cavalier attitude toward the disease.

HARRIS IS MAKING HISTORY. WILL IT ENERGIZE DEMOCRATS?

It’s no secret that Biden has struggled to excite some Democrats behind his candidacy. Harris could help on that front as she reminds America that she could make history as the first Black woman to serve as vice president. Her appearance on the debate stage alone is historic.

Look for Harris to have a moment Wednesday night, likely scripted, to help highlight her unique place in history. She did so effectively in the Democratic primary debates when she pointed to her personal experience with school busing — an experience she used, of course, to attack Biden.

Democrats are still working aggressively to encourage low-propensity voters, especially Black and younger people, to show up for Biden. Harris has perhaps her biggest and best opportunity to help address those concerns Wednesday night.

As she faces off with Pence, who is white, expect her to address Trump’s comments at the last debate where he demurred when was asked to condemn white supremacy, along with his remark that there were “very fine people” on both sides of a 2017 protest by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a counterprotester was killed.

WILL EITHER CANDIDATE TAKE THE GLOVES OFF?

The first rule for any running mate is to do no harm to the ticket. That typically puts a lot of pressure on vice presidential candidates to stick to cautious talking points.

But these are not typical times.

Pence has shown over the last four years that he has little interest in doing anything other than praising the president. But Harris, a former prosecutor, has demonstrated an ability and willingness to bring the fire when she wants to.

The California senator is uniquely positioned to attack Pence on the Trump administration's handling of racial divisions, women's issues, the coronavirus and the president's Supreme Court nominees.

Given how muted she's been on the campaign trail since joining the ticket, the question is how aggressive Biden's team will allow her to be.

Meanwhile, President Trump has resumed his frequent Twitter habit since returning to the White House on Monday after spending three days in a military hospital for COVID-19 treatment. Trump, an avid cable TV news viewer, may chime in via tweet as the debate unfolds.

WILL GENDER PLAY A ROLE?

Unlike the last debate, with two men and a male moderator, Wednesday’s debate features Harris, the fourth woman to ever appear on a major party’s presidential ticket, and a female moderator in Susan Page. The Trump-Pence campaign is working to make inroads with female voters and suburban women in particular.

Hillary Clinton suggested Pence would try to paint Harris as “the inexperienced woman candidate." Speaking at a recent fundraiser, the first woman to lead a presidential ticket said Harris will have to be mindful of the double standard for women in politics as she responds.

Harris has made her own appeal on the campaign trail, telling voters that a Supreme Court challenge to the national health care law could end insurance coverage for birth control and enable insurers to treat pregnancy as a preexisting condition.

The GOP’s push to quickly fill a Supreme Court seat once held by the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg could energize voters who see abortion, health care and other major issues on the line. Pence has emphasized his conservative Christian beliefs and anti-abortion stance on the campaign trail and portrayed Democrats as a threat to religious freedom.

Harris, a member of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, set to hold a hearing on Trump’s nominee, has been a staunch defender of abortion rights. A statement this week from two conservative justices raised new criticism of the court’s 2015 ruling legalizing same-sex marriage and suggested the court needs to revisit the decision. The move underlines liberals’ fears and conservatives’ excitement about the potential reshaping of the court.

Harris has been a staunch defender of same-sex marriage. Pence, as Indiana governor in 2015, drew national attention for signing a law that allowed business owners to deny service to gay people for religious reasons.

WILL THE DEBATE BE A PREVIEW OF 2024?

Pence is considered a potential successor to Trump and a likely 2024 presidential candidate. He brings executive experience as Indiana governor and vice president and would instantly be a leading contender if he jumps into the GOP race.

Harris has only elevated her profile since joining the Biden ticket and is expected to mount another run for the presidency in the future. That could come as soon as 2024 as Biden hasn’t committed to running for a second term if he wins this year. Look for whether Pence and Harris set the stage for their own political ambitions.

Harris has made her own appeal on the campaign trail, telling voters that a Supreme Court challenge to the national health care law could end insurance coverage for birth control and enable insurers to treat pregnancy as a preexisting condition.

The Associated Press/NBC
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