Pence, Harris face off in VP debate with focus squarely on COVID-19

SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) – Vice President Mike Pence and challenger Kamala Harris greeted each other at a distance at the start of their debate on Wednesday, a visual reminder that the coronavirus pandemic remains the dominant issue in the U.S. presidential race.

The two candidates entered the stage at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, waved to the masked and socially distanced crowd before nodding towards each other and taking their seats at desks 12 feet (3.6 meters) apart.

Pence, 61, who heads the government’s coronavirus task force, will be under pressure to show he can assume the country’s highest office if Republican President Donald Trump, 74, battling COVID-19, becomes too ill to serve.

The stakes were similarly high for Harris, 55, whose running mate, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, 77, would be the oldest U.S. president if elected on Nov. 3.

Pence and Harris, both with presidential ambitions of their own, sat behind plexiglass shields for the uninterrupted 90-minute debate.

“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” Harris said in opening remarks at the debate moderated by Susan Page, USA Today Washington Bureau Chief.

In response, Pence said: “Our nation has gone through a very challenging time this year. But I want the American people to know that from the very first day President Donald Trump has put the health of America first.”

Trump announced on Friday that he had tested positive and was hospitalized for three nights before returning on Monday to a White House that has struggled to contain the disease. His doctor said on Wednesday that Trump, who continues to receive treatment, had no COVID-19 symptoms for 24 hours.

The Pence-Harris debate was unlikely to match the chaos of the first debate last week between Trump and Biden, when Trump repeatedly interrupted Biden and the two traded insults. Pence, more even-tempered than Trump, and Harris, a former prosecutor known for sharp questioning during Senate hearings, are seen as polished communicators.

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Hours before the debate, the Harris camp sought to ramp up expectations for Pence’s performance.

“We know that Vice President Pence is a formidable debater, and that tonight is a challenge,” said Democratic U.S. Senator Cory Booker, a Harris ally.

Aides to Harris said that Pence’s style would be more polished than Trump’s more aggressive, off-the-cuff manner, but that his message would be the same.

Biden leads Trump in national opinion polls and has an advantage of 12 percentage points in the latest Reuters/Ipsos survey of likely voters. Polls show the race to be closer in some of the election battleground states that could determine the winner, although a Reuters/Ipsos poll on Wednesday showed Biden leading Trump in pivotal Florida.

PROSECUTOR VS RADIO HOSTHarris, who was on the biggest stage of her political career, is a U.S. senator from California picked by Biden in August as his running mate. The daughter of immigrants – her father from Jamaica and her mother from India – Harris is the first Black woman nominated by a major party for vice president as well as the first person of Asian descent.

Pence, a former conservative radio host who debated then-Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine in 2016, is a former U.S. congressman and Indiana governor who has steadfastly defended Trump during his tumultuous presidency.

A Biden campaign official said Harris was prepared for Pence to attack her as too liberal, echoing Trump’s assertion that the moderate Biden would advance a “radical left-wing” agenda if elected president, a charge Biden disputes.

The two campaigns squabbled over installing barriers on stage between Pence and Harris to guard against coronavirus infection.

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Harris had requested plexiglass shielding. Pence spokeswoman Katie Miller on Monday mocked Harris, saying if she “wants to use a fortress around herself, have at it.” Harris spokeswoman Sabrina Singh struck back, saying Pence’s response “tells you everything you need to know about why their COVID response is a failure.”

An aide to the vice president on Wednesday said Pence had agreed to the barriers to facilitate the debate.

Both Pence and Harris tested negative for the coronavirus on Tuesday. U.S. government guidelines call for anyone exposed to a person with COVID-19 to quarantine for 14 days regardless of test results.

The pandemic is likely to dominate the debate. Biden and Harris have made Trump’s handling of the public health crisis a central theme of their campaign, assailing Trump for playing down the health risks and failing to endorse mask-wearing to battle the spread of infection.

Pence can be expected to defend Trump’s response to the pandemic, which has killed more than 210,000 Americans and battered the U.S. economy even as other wealthy nations have managed to better control it.

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