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The Memo: Team Trump looks to Pence to steady ship in VP debate

The Memo: Team Trump looks to Pence to steady ship in VP debate
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Vice President Pence will be looking to stabilize the Trump campaign at Wednesday’s debate with Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisBiden teams to meet with Trump administration agencies Biden: 'Difficult decision' to staff administration with House, Senate members Ossoff, Warnock to knock on doors in runoff campaigns MORE (D-Calif.) — but he will be battling strong headwinds.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpMinnesota certifies Biden victory Trump tells allies he plans to pardon Michael Flynn: report Republican John James concedes in Michigan Senate race MORE’s struggle with COVID-19 remains the dominant political story. Trump has fallen even further behind his Democratic opponent Joe BidenJoe BidenMinnesota certifies Biden victory Trump tells allies he plans to pardon Michael Flynn: report Biden says staff has spoken with Fauci: 'He's been very, very helpful' MORE in opinion polls after the first presidential debate last week. And the president further roiled the waters on Tuesday by announcing that there would be no further economic stimulus until after the election, causing stock markets to tumble.

What Pence can do to overcome those dynamics is not entirely clear. 

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The vice president performed well in his sole 2016 debate against Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineDemocrats face increasing pressure to back smaller COVID-19 stimulus Rick Scott tests positive for coronavirus Grassley tests positive for coronavirus MORE (D-Va.), Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonIntercept DC bureau chief says Biden picks are 'same people' from Obama years The Hill's 12:30 Report - Third vaccine candidate with 90% efficacy Biden won — so why did Trump's popularity hit its highest point ever? MORE’s running mate. But there is always a question mark over how much vice presidential debates really matter.

“You always want to have a strong night but I’m also a believer that there are not a ton of undecided voters left — this is so much of a base election,” said Republican strategist Matt Gorman. “When it comes to giving fodder for the press, and providing some fun viewing, debates like these are really a great experience. But for changing votes and minds, I’m not sure how effective it will be.”

That fits with the patterns of the past. Some vice presidential debates have been the subject of massive public interest, such as Biden’s 2008 clash with GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. Others have featured dramatic moments, the most renowned being Democrat Lloyd Bentsen’s “You’re no Jack Kennedy” takedown of Dan Quayle in 1988.

But historians search in vain for examples of a vice presidential clash that has altered the course of an election campaign. 

A more likely scenario is that a solid performance can settle some nerves for whichever side is perceived to have done best. Biden’s strong showing against Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan calls for Trump to accept results: 'The election is over' Bottom line Democratic anger rises over Trump obstacles to Biden transition MORE in 2012 calmed Democrats after then-President Obama had underperformed in his first debate against Republican presidential nominee Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyBiden teams to meet with Trump administration agencies Paul Ryan calls for Trump to accept results: 'The election is over' Trump transition order follows chorus of GOP criticism MORE.

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The Trump campaign insists that Pence can amplify its case that the Democratic ticket is too left-wing for mainstream America. 

“This is another opportunity to expose the radical agenda the Biden-Harris ticket is carrying for the extreme left. 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,” Trump campaign manager Tim Murtaugh told The Hill via email, citing Biden’s tax plans, environmental positions and push for immigration reform.

Murtaugh added: “President Trump won the first debate and Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceBiden-Harris ticket the first in US history to surpass 80 million votes Most Republicans in new poll say they'd vote for Trump in 2024 Press: Trump's biggest fear is — lock him up MORE will be well-prepared and ready for his turn.”

The evidence points in the opposite direction when it comes to Trump and the first debate, however. 

Polls conducted since that clash last Tuesday have shown Biden with some of his largest leads of the campaign. Four national polls in recent days have given Biden a lead of 10 percentage points or greater. A CNN poll released Tuesday put Biden up by 16 points nationally.

Those polls were conducted mostly before Trump was hospitalized with COVID-19 on Friday evening. 

It is possible that the president will garner some sympathy for his struggle with the virus. But it is equally likely that some of his actions, including taking off his mask as he returned to the White House on Monday, will add to the criticism of him as reckless. His handling of the pandemic has been one of his worst issues in terms of public opinion.

Given the GOP ticket’s troubles, most Democrats believe that Harris needs only to avoid trouble on Wednesday evening.

“I’m not aware that any vice presidential debate in the past has moved the needle at all and I’m pretty sure this one is not going to be the exception to the rule,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley. Regarding Harris, he added that all that was required was for her “to get by with as few mistakes as possible. A draw would be just fine.”

One of the more serious challenges Harris faces is the possibility of expectations getting out of hand. Harris, a former attorney general of California, has delivered some impactful moments in Senate questioning of figures such as Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughCOVID-19: Justice Alito overstepped judicial boundaries Defusing the judicial confirmation process The magnificent moderation of Susan Collins MORE and former Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsAlabama zeroes in on Richard Shelby's future Tuberville incorrectly says Gore was president-elect in 2000 Next attorney general must embrace marijuana law reforms MORE.

But Pence, who had a successful talk radio career before being elected to Congress in 2000, is an effective communicator in his own right, and not easily rattled.

Still, if Harris must manage expectations, it is Pence who has the steeper climb overall.

“There is only a month left until the election and President Trump’s reelection prospects are in peril. Pence must do something to shake up the narrative of the race,” said Aaron Kall, the director of debate at the University of Michigan, and the editor and co-author of a book on Trump’s debate performances. 

“Pence must hope for a debate Hail Mary that shifts the news cycle following the debate away from coronavirus onto a more favorable political terrain.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.