Steve Peoples, Kathleen Ronayne and Jill Colvin
SALT LAKE CITY — Vice President Mike Pence and his Democratic challenger, California Sen. Kamala Harris, are set to face off in a debate that will offer starkly different visions for a country confronting escalating crises.
The debate Wednesday night in Salt Lake City is the most highly anticipated vice presidential debate in recent memory. It will unfold while President Donald Trump recovers at the White House after testing positive last week for the coronavirus and spending several days in the hospital, a serious setback for his campaign that adds pressure on Pence to defend the administration's handling of the pandemic.
For Harris, the debate is her highest profile opportunity to say how Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden would stabilize the United States, especially when it comes to the pandemic and racial injustice. She will have the chance to explain her views on law enforcement, an area in which she's viewed warily by some progressives, given her past as a prosecutor.
Ultimately, the debate is a chance for voters to decide whether Pence and Harris are in a position to step into the presidency at a moment's notice. It's hardly a theoretical question: The 74-year-old Trump is fighting the virus and Biden, at 77, would become the oldest person elected president.
Pence's debate strategy aims to highlight the administration's economic record and attempt to portray the Democratic ticket as beholden to "radical left," said former GOP Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who is helping the vice president prepare for the debate, on "Fox & Friends."
While the debate will likely cover a range of topics, the virus will be at the forefront.
Pence and Harris will appear on stage exactly 12.25 feet (3.7 meters) apart separated by plexiglass barriers. Anyone in the small audience who refuses to wear a mask will be asked to leave.
Pence was with Trump and others last week who have since tested positive, and the vice president has faced questions about whether he should be at the debate at all. Pence has repeatedly tested negative for the virus, and his staff and doctors insist he does not need to quarantine under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
The CDC defines risky "close contact" as being within 6 feet (1.8 meters) of an infected person for at least 15 minutes starting from two days before the onset of symptoms or a positive test.
Pence's team objected to Harris' request for plexiglass barriers, arguing it was medically unnecessary. But the Commission on Presidential Debates had already agreed to the barriers, and Pence's aides said their presence would not dissuade him from attending the event.
Pence's chief of staff, Marc Short, said there is "zero risk" of the vice president pulling out of the debate over the plexiglass spat. He said Pence "will be there" because it's "too important for the American people."
Sabrina Singh, a spokesperson for Harris, said the senator "will be at the debate, respecting the protections that the Cleveland Clinic has put in place to promote safety for all concerned." The Cleveland Clinic serves as a health adviser to the commission.
The debate is unlikely to be a repeat of the chaotic debate between Trump and Biden last week.
Pence is eager to seize on the Democrats' liberal policies, but it may be difficult to shift the conversation away from the Republican administration's uneven handling of the pandemic. Pence serves as chair of the president's coronavirus task force, which has failed to implement a comprehensive national strategy even as Trump himself recovers from the disease and the national death toll surges past 210,000 with no clear end in sight.
Biden has raised questions about whether he will participate in his next scheduled debate with Trump, telling reporters on Tuesday: "I think if he still has COVID, then we shouldn't have a debate."
The vice president is a 61-year-old former Indiana governor and ex-radio host, an evangelical Christian known for his folksy charm and unwavering loyalty to Trump.
Harris is a 55-year-old California senator, the daughter of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother. She is also a former prosecutor whose pointed questioning of Trump's appointees and court nominees and cool charm on the campaign trail made her a Democratic star.
She will make history as the first Black woman to appear in a vice presidential debate. Democrats hope the historic nature of her candidacy will help energize key groups of likely Democratic voters — African Americans and young people, in particular — who have shown less excitement for Biden.
It's unclear how aggressive the candidates will be with each other.
Both have adopted a cautious approach on the trail, keeping in line with past running mates who, above all, are tasked with not hurting their party's ticket.
Some Harris allies fear that a conservative approach will prevent her from shining.
"Overly scripting Kamala Harris is tantamount to removing five bullets out of her gun before you walk into a gun fight," said Nathan Barankin, who served as Harris' chief of staff in the Senate and when she was California attorney general.
While some Democrats have set high expectations for the debate, Harris and her allies have been trying to keep them low. Last month, when California's state Senate president told Harris on a Zoom call that home state fans were excited to watch her debate, Harris quickly interjected.
"He's a good debater," she said, laughing. "I'm just, I'm so concerned, like I can only disappoint."
Gender will likely play a role in the debate, Hillary Clinton, the first woman to lead a presidential ticket, said during a recent fundraiser.
She suggested Pence would try to paint Harris as "the inexperienced woman candidate." Harris will have to be mindful of the double standard for women in politics as she responds, Clinton said.
"She's got to be firm and effective in rebutting any implication that comes from the other side, but to do it in a way that doesn't, you know, scare or alienate voters," Clinton said.
Harris has been preparing for the debate in Salt Lake City since Saturday. Karen Dunn, a Washington lawyer who helped prepare Clinton for her 2016 debates against Trump, is leading Harris' debate preparations.
Harris plans to focus on failures of leadership by the Trump-Pence administration but avoid personal attacks against Trump, as Biden has done since the president was hospitalized for the virus, according to a campaign aide who wasn't authorized to discuss debate planning publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Pence has spent the last four years defending the president on a near-daily basis and mastered the art of turning Trump's chaotic rhetoric into more palatable, middle-of-the-road commentary.
Aides note that Pence's criticism has focused almost exclusively on Biden and his record instead of Harris. It's likely to stay that way Wednesday.