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Harris took more hits than Pence in a night of vice-presidential dodgeball

Republicans are wondering today if it’s too late to put Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceHarris more often the target of online misinformation than Pence: analysis Diversifying a patriarchal leadership Who is 'Anonymous' author Miles Taylor? MORE at the top of the ticket. Democrats are wondering who did Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisThere's still time to put Kamala Harris front and center Hillicon Valley: Biden campaign slams Facebook after thousands of ads blocked | Majority of voters in three swing states saw ads on social media questioning election validity: poll | Harris more often the target of online misinformation The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Pollsters stir debate over Trump numbers MORE’ debate prep. Everyone is wondering why Susan Page was the moderator.

Let’s be clear, the vice-presidential debate will not change much. Both the current vice-president and Sen. Harris are rather more likely to serve as president, given the ages of their running mates and that Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden leads Trump by 8 points nationally: poll Ivanka Trump raises million in a week for father's campaign On The Money: McConnell says Congress will take up stimulus package at start of 2021 | Lawmakers see better prospects for COVID deal after election MORE himself has indicated a likelihood he will only serve one term. Yet, they are not at the top of the ticket, so the political needle will likely only wobble a bit. Two results: Pence looks a lot stronger as a future Republican nominee, and Harris better get four years to apprentice before making a play for the brass ring.

Overall Pence got the better of Harris.

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Harris showed a combination of inexperience and poor preparation by opening herself — and Biden — to obvious attacks by Pence, failing to take advantage of opportunities and bringing up weak or superfluous talking points. As the debate wore on, she seemed to drift into a mode suited more for a California or Democratic primary debate.

To be fair, Harris has a problem in that most of the attack lines on Trump have been used for months and even years, meaning there is not much new for her to bring forward. When she did try a new tack, it flopped terribly. Her tedious history lesson about the 1864 Supreme Court vacancy might impress a sliver of Civil War buffs but likely left the audience unmoved — although she clearly thought it was very clever.

Harris did get the better of Pence on the issue of the coronavirus — but Pence doesn’t have much to work with. Pressing on the damage the virus has done and affirming she would take a vaccine recommended by doctors helped. Pence’s attempt to deflect criticism regarding the president’s recent contracting of the virus was weak. Harris failed to press the case for Trump recklessness — a clear weak point she could have made hay with. She scored points on health care, as Pence had no alternative to Obamacare.

Failing to press her advantage when she had it was a theme for Harris. She made a strong point about the danger of not knowing who Trump and his businesses are in hock to — but, inexplicably, she dropped it. A more experienced candidate would have pressed that point over and over.

Harris made five specific flubs, errors that are going to force Team Biden to backpedal on:

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  • China: Biden was unambiguous that China is a problem for the United States and not a friend. Harris completely booted the issue, speaking as if she was at an Economic Policy Institute roundtable — talking consumer prices and Xi Jinping’s approval rating. There is not much that Democrats and Republicans agree on, but both groups think China is a menace.
  • Iran: As with China, Americans of all stripes view Iran as an enemy. Yet Harris decided to wander into committing to bringing back the Obama nuclear deal. Even worse, she implied Iran was building a nuclear arsenal — so why appease them?
  • Court-packing: Biden got away with a no-answer due to Trump’s attention-deficit disorder. No luck for Harris with Pence. Even worse, Harris teed up the question. Biden and Harris are right to dodge the issue, as opposing court-packing would be disastrous with their base and favoring it might tip the public to be okay with the Barrett nomination. Harris’s explicit dodge may have killed the issue.
  • Fracking: There are plenty of people in the Democrats’ tent who are rabidly against fracking. Harris repeatedly and explicitly opposed a ban three times. She could have talked about more stringent regulation and oversight to sweeten the pill but failed. Biden smartly didn’t dwell on this contentious issue. It is possible that a slice of hard-core environmentalists will be lost to the Greens on this alone. In politics sometimes you just have to move on, Senator.
  • Prosecutor Harris: Even worse than court-packing, Harris made an own-goal by demanding to talk about her record as a prosecutor. Her talk about nailing banks and for-profit colleges does not have much resonance when there are riots in American cities. Even worse, she set up Pence to bash her for persecuting African Americans for minor crimes.    

The debate was not a wipeout for Harris and Biden, but she did not do well. Harris made multiple clear mistakes. I am guessing that the aggressiveness of Pence threw her back a bit and, as the night wore on, she moved away from the game plan into talking points that won’t move anyone — the endorsement of seven former Bush cabinet members is a nothingburger.

The Biden team is going to have to extricate themselves from her China and Iran gaffes and find ways to soothe the environmentalists.

In the end, all this is subsidiary to the Trump Show.

As long as Trump and his erratic behavior are at the forefront, Biden can keep hiding. Similar to the VP debate in 1988, plenty of people are thinking the wrong guy is at the top of the ticket.

As for Kamala Harris, the future of the Democratic Party has a lot of work to do.

Keith Naughton, Ph.D., co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, is a public affairs consultant who specialized in Pennsylvania judicial elections. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.