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What to watch for in the Pence-Harris vice presidential debate

Pence and Harris set to debate
Pence and Harris set to debate 03:06

Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris are meeting on Wednesday evening in Salt Lake City, Utah, for the sole vice presidential debate, which will be moderated by USA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page.

The coronavirus pandemic is likely to be the top issue of the evening, especially since President Trump tested positive for COVID-19 last week. Safety measures have been put in place for tonight's debate at the University of Utah.

Here's what to watch for Wednesday night at 9 p.m.

How will Pence defend the president's response to the pandemic?

Pence, who has tested negative for COVID-19 several times in recent days, will be tasked with defending Mr. Trump's response to the coronavirus pandemic, an argument he'll have to make in the face of Mr. Trump's positive diagnosis for the disease last week. The president spent the weekend in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and returned to the White House on Monday evening.

Mr. Trump has repeatedly downplayed the virus, even as over 210,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. A post from President Trump incorrectly comparing the death toll from the coronavirus to the flu was removed by Facebook and flagged by Twitter soon after the president posted it Tuesday morning.

Pence initially resisted the safety measures put in place by the Commission on Presidential Debates for the event Wednesday. He then agreed to a plexiglass barrier on his side of the debate stage after earlier objecting to the separation.

Even before Mr. Trump contracted COVID-19, there could be no doubt that Harris planned to critique the administration's response. She and Democratic nominee Joe Biden have repeatedly condemned the administration's handling of the pandemic. Biden said that he would try to implement a three-month nationwide mask mandate if elected president, and Harris may have to defend this position, since its constitutionality is unclear.

She may also be asked to say definitively whether she would take a coronavirus vaccine if it were made available before the election. Previously, she has waffled on whether she believes such a vaccine would be safe.

"I would not trust Donald Trump, and it would have to be a credible source of information that talks about the efficacy and the reliability of whatever he's talking about," Harris said in an interview with CNN last month. However, she said she would trust government scientists like Dr. Anthony Fauci if they said a vaccine was safe and effective.

Will Harris go on the offensive?

One of the most memorable moments of the Democratic primary debates came when Harris challenged Biden, now her running mate, on his civil rights record. She noted that Biden opposed federal measures to ensure that local jurisdictions employed busing to desegregate public schools in the 1970s. She spoke passionately about her own experience helping to integrate her public school through busing as a little girl.

"There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school everyday, and that little girl was me," Harris said.

Harris, a former prosecutor, has also gained a reputation as a sharp and aggressive questioner of witnesses as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Now, the question is whether Harris will apply the same approach, including the passion and personal appeals she used against Biden, to hit Pence on the Trump administration's record.

Will Pence use Harris' seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee against her?

The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last month left an open seat on the nation's highest court. President Trump moved fast to fill her post, nominating conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett, a choice who was embraced by his Republican base with equal speed and enthusiasm

Since her controversial nomination, Barrett has been backed by a coalition of conservative lawyers and hailed by GOP lawmakers. Democrats have said they oppose voting on her appointment until after the presidential election — an argument made by their Republican counterparts when President Obama nominated judge Merrick Garland in 2016, about seven months before Election Day.

Vice President Mike Pence has supported his party's push to begin the nomination process, telling reporters ahead of a meeting with Barrett and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last month that it is an opportunity "for a fair and respectful consideration." 

"We urge our Democratic colleagues in the Senate to take the opportunity to meet with Judge Barrett," he said. "And as the hearing goes forward to provide the kind of respectful hearing the American people expect."

Among those Pence was addressing was Harris, a senator who will weigh in on Barrett during her confirmation hearings next week as a member of the Judiciary Committee, and on her final confirmation by the full Senate.

Like other Senate Democrats, Harris has pledged not to confirm a new justice until after the election, honoring Ginsburg's final wish. "The stakes of this election couldn't be higher," she wrote. "Millions of Americans are counting on us to win and protect the Supreme Court — for their health, for their families, and for their rights."

Another issue on the debate stage may be Harris' membership on the committee, where she is widely expected to have a prominent role in Barrett's confirmation hearings. As a trained prosecutor, Harris has made national headlines for her direct questioning. 

During the last Supreme Court confirmation fight, Harris asked Brett Kavanaugh if he could name any laws that govern a man's body. Kavanaugh could not, highlighting Harris' point on abortion rights — which are again at stake in the wake of Ginsburg's death. 

The current eight-justice Supreme Court is expected to issue its first decision on abortion access in the coming days. The case doesn't directly challenge Roe v. Wade, but could alter the way patients access the procedure and offers a glimpse into the future of a post-Ginsburg court. 

Could this be a preview for 2024?

Although it is still three weeks until Election Day 2020, both Pence and Harris are considered potential successors to the presidency. Vice presidents have a tendency to later run for president themselves, and Mr. Trump and Biden are both septuagenarians.

Biden has already said that he sees himself as a "bridge" to the next generation of Democratic leaders. If he wins, Harris, who is 55, could be the first to take up that mantle.

Pence, 61, is also already considered a potential candidate for president in 2024, whether or not Mr. Trump wins reelection. 

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