Vice-presidential debates can often be afterthoughts in a presidential race. But with President Trump in the hospital, Mike Pence and Kamala Harris will now face an unusual amount of scrutiny, and a tricky balancing act.
President Trump’s hospitalization with the coronavirus has catapulted this week’s vice-presidential debate into the spotlight to an extraordinary degree, 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 to step in as president.
Mr. Trump’s diagnosis with a potentially lethal virus — and the fact that he is 74 and his Democratic rival, Joseph R. Biden Jr., is 77 — was a stark reminder that either Mr. Pence or Ms. Harris could end up being president themselves, as opposed to just leading contenders for the nomination in 2024 and beyond.
For Mr. Pence, Wednesday’s debate will most likely compel him to account for the administration’s record on a virus that has now infected 7.4 million Americans — including the most protected man in the country, Mr. Trump — and answer for his own stewardship as chairman of the federal coronavirus task force. For Ms. Harris, a former prosecutor, the debate is a chance to show that she is capable of being president in a national emergency, as well as to demonstrate that she can challenge the Trump record on Covid-19 without seeming overly aggressive against an ailing president.
Depending on how quickly Mr. Trump recovers, his condition could also force the cancellation of the two remaining debates between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden. Should that happen, the 90-minute session on Wednesday would be the final debate of this presidential election season, and the last chance for both parties to command a huge audience.
That could be particularly significant for Mr. Trump, whose unruly debate performance last week turned voters in some key states against him.
Raphael J. Sonenshein, the executive director of the of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles, said that a debate between two running mates in any other year would be little more than a “political afterthought.” Wednesday’s vice-presidential matchup in Salt Lake City would be markedly different, he said, “given the age and vulnerability of the candidates” running for president.
“The vice-presidential debate could be the only thing happening,” said Mr. Sonenshein, who was on a panel of questioners for Ms. Harris’s 2016 Senate debate.
There have been some questions about whether Mr. Pence should participate at all, given his exposure to a White House where new positive tests are arriving by the day. “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, rejected the suggestion that Mr. Pence should 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 seven feet that was originally proposed.
“I have no concerns at all,” Mr. Miller said on the NBC program “Meet the Press” while discussing the safety of Mr. Pence’s attending the debate. “We’re in a campaign. We have a month to go. We see Joe Biden and Kamala Harris out there campaigning.”
Vice-presidential contests are rarely determinative in presidential elections, particularly one with as dominating a presence as Mr. Trump on the ballot. But this debate is taking place in the midst of a crisis: a hospitalized president sickened by a virus that has already killed over 200,000 Americans, and a swirl of unanswered questions about the seriousness of his illness, his prognosis and when — or if — he will be able to return to the campaign trail. The election is now one month away.
Polls since early summer have shown Mr. Trump trailing Mr. Biden, heightening the importance of these kinds of mass-attention events.
Mr. Pence and Ms. Harris have until now largely been eclipsed by the contest between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden. But it appears that for the time being, Mr. Pence will become the face of the campaign while its standard-bearer remains out of public view.
But Mr. Pence standing in for Mr. Trump could work to the benefit of the Democrats, according to Jennifer Palmieri, a senior adviser to the 2016 Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and a coach for her running-mate, Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, for the 2016 vice-presidential debate.
“It’s so hard for the Biden-Harris ticket to get a clean shot at delivering straight message because Trump takes up so much oxygen,” she said. “They have to make the most of every opportunity.”
Mr. Pence has some advantages. After four years at Mr. Trump’s side, he has close experience with the major policy and political challenges that are bound to come up on Wednesday, especially on the virus and the economy. And Mr. Pence went through such a debate in 2016, where he checked all of the boxes of an effective No. 2 candidate: He was a diligent defender of Mr. Trump and relentless attacker of Mrs. Clinton.
By contrast, Ms. Harris has been in Washington since only 2017, and relegated to the sidelines as a Democrat in the Republican-controlled Senate. She has appeared in debates while running for senator and attorney general from California — much smaller-scale affairs against opponents of less ambition and talent than Mr. Pence.
For Mr. Pence, this is much different terrain from 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 endangered himself and others, and now the pandemic has swept through the White House and some Republican circles.
“It was squarely on the table in the presidential debate, and it’s going to be squarely on the table in the vice-presidential debate because it’s top of mind for everybody,” Mr. Kaine said in an interview. “Because Pence was asked to assume the leadership role. And now because the president — who undermined all the science all the way along and said it was a hoax or wasn’t a big problem — has now been diagnosed.”
Mr. Pence will face an added burden to make the most of this moment, given Mr. Biden’s lead in many polls and the dwindling opportunities to change the trajectory of the race.