Vice President Mike Pence is set to square off with Sen. Kamala Harris at the vice presidential debate Wednesday in Salt Lake City just over one exceptionally long week since President Donald Trump faced former Vice President Joe Biden on the debate stage.
In the days since, the White House and nation have been rocked by the President’s positive coronavirus diagnosis, hospitalization and subsequent return to the White House. It’s long been said that vice presidential debates are unlikely to significantly move the election needle, but with questions surrounding the health of both presidential candidates in sharper focus given the events of the past week, Wednesday night’s debate will give voters a closer look at the person they are electing to be second in command and the solemn role they vow to uphold.
“Both candidates right now have a lot of questions of health, which makes the VP debate this year even more important. With a vice president, voters are looking for stability, they’re looking for assurance,” a former Pence aide told CNN.
The former aide added: “The vice presidential race doesn’t necessarily make a huge impact on the final tally, but it’s something that voters are absolutely considering when they’ve got to vote for one of two candidates that are in their 70s.”
Pence, who traveled to multiple states for indoor and outdoor campaign events and participated in numerous White House events and meetings in that time, has repeatedly tested negative, his office said.
Pence’s physician, Jesse Schonau, said in a statement that the vice president did not need to quarantine because he was not considered a close contact with Trump or any of the other individuals who have tested positive. He has taken daily antigen tests and intermittent, more accurate, PCR tests.
So Pence, joined by the second lady and his children, boarded Air Force Two for Utah Monday afternoon.
“The President told me he was headed back to the White House. He told me to head to Utah. And we’re looking very much forward to the vice presidential debate,” Pence, who removed his mask to address the press at Joint Base Andrews, said.
Not business as usual
But despite the President and administration’s desire to get back to normal, the physical setup of Wednesday’s debate will betray any sense of business as usual.
The Commission on Presidential Debates and both campaigns agreed Friday to increase the space between Pence and Harris on the debate stage Wednesday night from seven to 12 feet. Both candidates will be tested for Covid-19 before the 90-minute debate. Debate organizers are requiring that anyone in the hall other than the candidates and the moderator wear a face mask. There will be no handshake or physical greeting, according to the commission, but Pence and Harris will be separated by an acrylic glass barrier, a topic of much back-and-forth Tuesday.
After the commission announced the candidates would be separated by transparent acrylic, top Pence aides said the vice president did not want or need a barrier around himself.
“If Sen. Harris wants to use a fortress around herself, have at it,” Pence communications director Katie Miller, who herself exposed reporters to coronavirus earlier this year with refusal to wear a mask, said.
Pence’s team later agreed to a barrier around him, hours after Miller’s husband, top Trump aide Stephen Miller, tested positive. Katie Miller subsequently departed for Salt Lake City.
In addition to those visual reminders, Pence, one of Trump’s most loyal and steadfast allies over the past four years, will likely face tough questions about the administration’s handling of the pandemic which has killed more than 210,000 Americans and his own role leading the White House coronavirus task force.
Pence remained behind closed doors upon his arrival in Salt Lake City Monday with no public events Tuesday, hunkering down to prepare for Wednesday evening, with the exception of a family hike.
He had no public events over the weekend while the President was being treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, but did lead a call on protecting seniors with state and local officials Saturday in Trump’s stead. Former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, a top administration ally who defended Trump from impeachment charges on the House floor earlier this year, reportedly played Harris during Pence’s preparation sessions, according to Axios.
He is “meticulously on-message,” the former aide said, and viewers should expect a “measured, on-message approach to answering the questions.”
Unlike last week’s raucous presidential debate, the former aide said, it is more likely that the candidates remain focused on policy and drawing contrasts.
Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh cast the debate as “another opportunity to expose the radical agenda the Biden-Harris ticket is carrying for the extreme left,” a frequent Trump campaign refrain disputed by Biden.
A spokesperson for Pence’s vice presidential office declined to comment on his debate preparations.
If past is prologue
Four years ago this week, a measured Pence faced feisty jabs and interruptions from 2016 Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Tim Kaine, who focused his attacks squarely on Trump. It was perhaps a preview of the Pence the country has come to know: focused and relentlessly on-message in his backing of Trump.
“Six times tonight, I have said to Gov. Pence, I can’t image how you can defend your running mate’s position on one issue or the next and on all six issues, he has refused to defend his running mate,” Kaine said at the time. “And yet, he is asking everybody to vote for someone he cannot defend.”
But Pence, who is widely speculated to have political ambitions beyond 2020, has been a relentless defender of Trump’s leadership in the years since that debate night. In addition to the fact that Pence will come to Wednesday night’s debate with a four-year record, it will also be different in that his opponent, this time, will be a woman of color.
“I have always witnessed the vice president treat every single person he’s ran against and debated against with respect. I think you’ll see that on Wednesday,” the former Pence aide said.
With the President convalescing back at the White House, Pence’s campaign travel is expected to continue, with little sign that any protocols will change to meet the needs of the moment.
Though Pence’s events are smaller in scale than Trump’s campaign rallies, his campaign activities still actively fly in the face of recommendations from task force he leads. There is little to no social distancing. He wears masks, but inconsistently.
Following Wednesday’s debate, Pence will begin “a swing through key states following Wednesday’s debate,” the campaign said, including “Make America Great Again!” events Thursday in Boulder City, Nevada, and Peoria, Arizona, early voting in his native Indiana, and “other events yet to be announced.”
CNN’s Dan Merica and Jim Acosta contributed to this report.