Vice President Pence faces a challenging environment in the first vice presidential debate on Wednesday, which will take place against an unprecedented backdrop of events.
Pence will take the stage as President TrumpDonald TrumpCheney says a lot of GOP lawmakers have privately encouraged her fight against Trump Republicans criticizing Afghan refugees face risks DeVos says 'principles have been overtaken by personalities' in GOP MORE, his running mate, battles the coronavirus. Trump left the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Monday evening amid continued questions about his health.
The White House is also dealing with a growing outbreak within its walls. On Monday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and two of her deputies came down with COVID-19.
The positive cases have drawn new attention to criticism of the president’s handling of the disease, which is the defining issue in the presidential race.
Pence on Wednesday must ease jittery Republican voters reeling from a week of disastrous news for the GOP ticket. Trump’s positive coronavirus test came days after a much criticized debate performance by the president that appears to have hurt him in polls that already showed him trailing Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenPelosi sets Thursday vote on bipartisan infrastructure bill Pressure grows to cut diplomatic red tape for Afghans left behind President Biden is making the world a more dangerous place MORE.
The vice president won’t be the only candidate on stage facing a challenge, of course.
It will also be a difficult environment for Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisBiden, Harris push big lie about Border Patrol Two 'View' hosts test positive for coronavirus ahead of Harris interview Rep. Karen Bass to run for mayor of Los Angeles: report MORE (D-Calif.), Biden’s running mate.
The former prosecutor will aim to hold Pence and the Trump administration accountable for failing to handle the deadly disease that has killed 210,000 Americans while the president recovers from his own bout with the virus.
Both Pence and Harris will take the stage with plexiglass separating them, a sources familiar with the debate plans said, a reminder of the White House outbreak that has sidelined not only the president but some of his closest aides.
Yet Harris must also be conscious that her attacks on the administration will come at a time when Trump’s own health could remain in jeopardy.
“My suspicion is that the Biden-Harris campaign will be monitoring the president’s health right up to the start of the debate,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne, who served on Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats worry negative images are defining White House Heller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll MORE’s 2016 presidential campaign. “I think that certainly impacts how aggressive Sen. Harris will prosecute the case against Trump."
A Biden aide said Harris will continue the Biden campaign’s strategy of homing in on Trump’s failed leadership “which of course includes the handling of COVID-19.”
While most vice presidential debates are a formality of sorts, the one feels different for a number of reasons.
“It will matter,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.
Pence and Harris are second bananas to two men in their 70s, and Trump’s bout with the deadly virus is a reminder that the vice president is a heartbeat away from the Oval Office.
“The president’s health condition has made the vice presidency more important than ever, not just in terms of thinking about the next few years but possibly the next few weeks,” Zelizer said.
“Pence needs to use this to show he could be president if needed,” Zelizer added. “While Harris has the first big opportunity to get back to the campaign and bring the conversation back to the core issues of the day. More than usual, Americans will watch this event with an eye toward two potential presidents.”
Biden is leading the presidential race in both national and swing state polls with 28 days to go until Election Day. And Pence will face added pressure to perform well in the debate and help bring much-needed momentum to a struggling campaign.
“Harris has every advantage coming into this debate,” one GOP strategist conceded. “Pence is going to have to try and turn this around all on his own and that’s a pretty daunting situation to be in.”
The debate could also prove to be the last faceoff of the presidential cycle if the debate commission deems it unsafe for Trump and Biden to meet.
“I’ll do whatever the experts say,” Biden said on Monday before traveling to Miami for a campaign stop, adding that if experts say it’s safe, “That’s fine.”
Both sides are also anxious to move past last week's presidential debate, during which Trump repeatedly interrupted Biden and the former vice president told the president to “shut up.”
Both campaigns say they expect the debate to focus largely on policy.
Trump campaign officials say Pence will focus on Harris’s record, trying to paint her as a progressive by highlighting her support for the Green New Deal and "Medicare for All" legislation.
“This is another opportunity to expose the radical agenda the Biden Harris ticket is carrying for the extreme left,” said Tim Murtaugh, Trump’s communications director. “Kamala Harris is the most liberal member of the entire U.S. Senate and she serves to push Joe Biden even further to the left.
“President Trump won the first debate and Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PencePence says he hopes conservative majority on Supreme Court will restrict abortion access Federal judge to hear case of Proud Boy alleged Jan. 6 rioter seeking release from jail The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Dems attempt to tie government funding, Ida relief to debt limit MORE will be well-prepared and ready for his turn,” Murtaugh said.
Biden aides familiar with Harris’s strategy say she will seek to make the case for “why Biden is the leader the country needs now” while holding Trump accountable for his mishandling of COVID-19.
“We don’t need to go up there and name-call,” one Biden aide added.