Pence and Harris Set to Square Off Tonight in Sole VP Debate

SALT LAKE CITY (CN) — On the heels of a raucous first presidential debate and amid a coronavirus crisis at the White House, a booming Western city will host the first and only debate showdown Wednesday between Vice President Mike Pence and his Democratic rival, Senator Kamala Harris of California.

Wednesday’s event, on the sprawling mountainside campus of the University of Utah, offers an avenue to return to decorum following the brouhaha between President Donald Trump, 74, and Democratic challenger Joe Biden, 77, last week.

Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today, will moderate the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates’ second event, to be divided into nine segments of 10 minutes, with a moderator-led discussion and potential for follow-up questions. The debate kicks off at 9 p.m. Eastern with no commercial breaks.

Page takes the moderator reins from “Fox News Sunday” anchor Chris Wallace, who faced an unenviable task of corralling the insult-filled Trump-Biden slugfest in Cleveland, Ohio.

The presidential candidates repeatedly hurled barbs and zingers, talked over one another, and pushed Wallace to temporarily pause the action.

“If you want to switch seats we can do it,” an exasperated Wallace eventually said to Trump.

University of Utah faculty this week heartily embraced hosting the second debate, albeit in the midst of a pandemic.

Edmund Fong, associate professor and chair of the political science department’s ethnic studies division, pointedly called the first presidential debate “the most troubling in our lifetimes.”

“I think and hope that the vice presidential debate will appear as a breath of fresh air,” Fong said.

“Harris is extremely articulate, calm and sharp. Pence, thankfully, seems devoid of the histrionics of Trump. I expect an actual debate,” Fong added. “I think both will deliver.”

Fong said a recent positive Covid-19 diagnosis for Trump stands to play into Pence’s performance.

“Depending on the state of Trump’s health, Pence may feel extra pressure to make a case for himself as ‘presidential,’” Fong said, citing vice presidential candidates’ general role as “attack dog for the president.”

Current polling, Fong added, could signal a “landslide” victory for Biden.

“The election seems to be breaking rapidly in Biden’s favor,” said Fong. “States like Texas, Ohio and Iowa show Trump barely with a lead by two points, while key 2016 battleground states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have Biden favored anywhere from five to nine points. If the election were held today or if things do not change, it could be a landslide victory for Biden.”

Assistant professor David De Micheli called the current state of the election “unpredictable yet stable.” 

“Week to week, there is always something new that crops up that seems to rattle the public,” De Micheli said, citing an “uncertainty around mail-in voting, largely fomented by the Trump campaign,” the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the tenacious first presidential debate.

“Since the Trump campaign is clearly on defense in this election, Harris will need to strike the right balance in her tone,” De Micheli said. “[Harris] needs to be critical and identify weaknesses or failures on the part of the president, without coming off as overly harsh or an implacable critic on the left. The goal for Pence/Trump is to change the conversation from the pandemic and its related economic downturn toward the one issue that works in Trump’s favor — the pre-Covid economy.”

De Micheli added the debate was part of “an already chaotic semester” and said faculty were “mostly taking it in stride.”

Adding to the uncertainty of tonight’s debate, rising Covid-19 cases in Salt Lake City reportedly sent 52 local police officers, an estimated 9% of the force, into quarantine. Detective Michael Ruff said 17 officers had tested positive for the virus.

University and state police as well as federal authorities will assist the Salt Lake City Police Department during the event.

Page has complete discretion over the debate as moderator and has not tipped her hat to potential questions.

A veteran White House reporter who has covered six administrations and 11 national campaigns, Page faced criticism over a party she threw for a Trump administration official in 2018.

She reportedly held a celebration at her home for Seema Verma, head of Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Harris, a longtime California prosecutor, arrived in Utah on Sunday and engaged in a bit of sightseeing, donning a mask during a walk at This is the Place Heritage Park.

Pence, the former Indiana governor and conservative talk radio show host, landed in Salt Lake City aboard Air Force Two on Monday. He was greeted by Utah Governor Gary Herbert and first lady Jeanette Herbert, and 4th Congressional District GOP candidate and former professional footballer Burgess Owens.

A Utah poll released this week showed Trump with a 10-point lead over Biden.

National polls favor Biden, however, by 16 points.

The Beehive State, which ranks among the fastest-growing states in the nation, experienced a 1.9% growth in population from 2017 to 2018. A whopping 91% of the state’s residents live in urban settings.

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