Vice President Mike Pence is entering his first and only debate against Sen. Kamala Harris with an unusual but fitting task: To clean up everything his boss said when the president appeared on the debate stage himself last week.
With his serene grin, gentle Midwestern charm and unrivaled ability to soften President Donald Trump’s words, Pence is seen by many White House allies as the Trump campaign’s last hope for a desperately needed reset following a streak of missteps by the man at the top of the ticket — beginning with Trump’s erratic performance during his debate against Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and ending with his determination to leave the hospital Monday still in the throes of a serious Covid-19 infection.
“Ahead of the events of the last seven days, I thought the vice presidential debate would be an important opportunity for the Trump campaign. Now it’s a matter of survival,” said Republican strategist Rob Stutzman.
No stranger to the role of Trump’s translator, Pence has spent much of the past four years using campaign trail appearances and major speeches to define the president’s agenda in more palatable terms for moderate Republicans and swing voters, and to repackage Trump’s vicious attacks on opponents as the musings of a leader who simply wants to defend faith-focused Americans and ordinary workers.
It’s these tactics Pence allies are looking for him to deploy when he and Harris, a former prosecutor and gutsy debater, face off at the University of Utah on Wednesday. Where Trump has struggled to outline the contours of a second-term agenda, his campaign aides say Pence will fill the void. Where he has failed to justify his response to the global coronavirus outbreak, Pence will come to his defense. And where a damning portrayal of Biden has escaped the president so far, Pence allies believe he will finally define the Democratic nominee in a way that repels undecided and on-the-fence voters.
“The vice president will do everything Trump failed to do when he wasted an hour yelling at Biden instead of taking on his policy shortcomings, and he will look a lot better doing it,” said one former White House official.
Wednesday’s 90-minute debate could be one of the last times Trump’s mild-mannered vice president is left to clean up a mess of the president’s own making before voters seal their fate on Nov. 3. It could also be his most high-stakes endeavor yet with no guarantee of the final two presidential debates if Trump’s condition worsens in the coming days. The televised event is expected to draw millions of viewers, many of whom were left unsatisfied after the first Biden-Trump debate devolved into an epic imbroglio and have spent the past week reminded of both men’s septuagenarian status.
“Everyone votes for the top of the ticket but speaking actuarially, these two candidates are probably more likely to be president of the United States than usual,” said Michael Steel, a veteran GOP strategist who served as press secretary to former Speaker John Boehner.
Two national polls released after the first presidential debate and Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis have shown Biden and Harris leading the GOP ticket by their widest margin yet. One Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll posted over the weekend, as Trump clamored to return to the White House amid his hospitalization at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, showed Biden with a 32-point edge over the president when respondents were asked to identify which candidate had the right temperament to be president. Trump spent a majority of the first debate pummeling his opponent and the moderator, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, with endless interruptions and personal attacks — an approach his even-keeled vice president is expected to avoid in favor of a more substantive conversation.
“Mike Pence is a decent and respectful man. He’s not going to do anything to replicate the president’s behavior in the first debate,” Steel said, adding that Pence is a “gifted communicator who, frankly, does a better job explaining the administration’s achievements than the president himself.”
For Pence, a stalwart conservative with presidential ambitions of his own, the debate marks an opportunity to stop the president’s hemorrhaging support by shifting voters’ attention away from Trump’s health and conduct and toward Biden-Harris positions on health care, taxes, the “Green New Deal,” China and more. His performance in the 2016 vice presidential debate with Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) suggests he is up to the task and — unlike Trump — capable of relentlessly attacking an opponent without bulldozing standard decorum.
But as he works to corner Harris on issues where she and Biden possess divergent views, Pence will have to fend off questions about his own record — from his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic as head of the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force to past statements he’s made about health care, systemic racism, trade and LGBTQ rights. One Democratic official said Harris has been encouraged to use Pence’s comments and policy record prior to his time in the White House to draw a contrast between him and Trump, whose economic populism and aggression toward China has sometimes put him at odds with positions previously held by his vice president.
Meanwhile, Pence is expected to press the issues of court-packing and law and order during Wednesday’s event in Salt Lake City. Both Harris and Biden have sidestepped questions about whether they support calls by some Democrats to expand the number of justices on the Supreme Court to counter its conservative majority, and Harris has been accused by the Trump campaign of endorsing rioters and looters after she promoted a bail fund on social media for demonstrators who were arrested during anti-racism protests.
The court-packing issue is likely to underscore the contrast between Pence’s disciplined approach and Trump’s scattershot strategy, after the president was widely panned by his own aides and advisers for interjecting during the first debate when Biden appeared to be struggling with a clear response on the topic. The president interrupted at other points to accuse Biden of sidelining progressive voters with centrist positions, a claim that contradicted his broader attempt to cast the 74-year-old Democrat as a raging socialist.
“The president has not been able to decide on a consistent line of attack against Biden,” Steel said. “Is he a moderate who has alienated the left wing of his party or a Trojan horse for the radical left? These are mutually exclusive lines of attack and it was really disconcerting to see the president ping-pong between them — often in the same answer — during the first debate.”
“So I think Pence is going to have to choose which of those narratives he wants to use as his line of attack and stick to it.”
Faced with deep polling deficits, sluggish economic conditions, a boss battling Covid-19 and a once-in-a-generation pandemic, it would be easy to dismiss the first and only vice presidential debate as one where the odds are stacked against Pence. Though the vice president has proven adept in the past at defending Trump during many of the most controversial moments of his presidency — including his impeachment by the House, dismissal of Covid-19 as less threatening than the seasonal flu and botched response to a 2017 neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va. — there has rarely been as much attention on him as there will be Wednesday night.
Still, the vice president’s allies say he has spent weeks diligently preparing to take on Harris and is even more eager to do well now that the remaining Biden-Trump debates are far from certain. Trump aides have said he intends to participate in the second presidential debate on Oct. 15, though it is unclear if the president will have safely recovered from the novel coronavirus by then. One Republican close to Pence said it’s not unprecedented for a vice presidential debate to have a tangible impact on a flagging campaign, pointing to Biden’s standout performance against 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan after President Barack Obama fumbled in his first debate during his bid for reelection.
But because of his boss, others are less sure even a first-rate performance by Trump’s vice president will move the needle between now and Election Day.
“Pence can win the debate, but a reset of the campaign is impossible so long as Trump carries on as he has the past couple weeks,” Stutzman said, hours before the president shocked his own campaign team on Tuesday by directing congressional Republicans to pull the plug on coronavirus relief talks. “There’s just no overcoming that behavior no matter how well Pence does.”
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