By Emma Kinery
US Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris face off Wednesday night in their first and only debate less than a month before the election, with coronavirus adding a sudden twist to the event.
The showdown between vice-presidential candidates is more often a sideshow of US presidential elections, but this year the encounter between President Donald Trump’s and Democrat Joe Biden’s running mates takes on far greater significance with the economy staggered by the pandemic.
The virus hit home for the Republican ticket over the past week with Trump and a widening circle of his aides testing positive for the virus and the president eventually landing in a military hospital for three days.
The debate will be an opportunity for the American public to gauge whether Pence, 61, is ready to take over for the president. The debate will be a showcase as well for Harris, 55.
Even before the coronavirus swept the U.S., there were questions about the age of the candidates. Trump is 74 and Biden is 77, and either of them would be the oldest president in U.S. history if inaugurated. (Trump would hold that place twice, becoming in 2017 the oldest president inaugurated).
When to watch:
The candidates will meet in person at 9 p.m. New York time on Wednesday (5 am South African time on Thursday) in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Commission on Presidential Debates has announced several measures intended to mitigate the risk of infection from the coronavirus.
Although the candidates will not wear masks on stage, they will not shake hands and will be placed 12 feet apart rather than the planned 7 feet.
There will be plexiglass barriers between the candidates, and the candidates and moderator Susan Page of USA Today. The Pence team had initially balked at allowing a divider next to him but agreed on Tuesday evening, according to two people familiar with the matter.
The audience is required to wear masks and the commission says it will remove anyone who refuses to wear one. The first family and accompanying staff refused offers of masks at the Cleveland Clinic for the September 29 Trump-Biden debate.
The debate will last 90 minutes, divided into nine 10-minute segments. The organizers haven’t released the list of topics.
How to watch:
The debate will be aired by all major broadcast and cable networks as well as live-streamed online on YouTube and most network news sites.
What to watch for:
* Harris, a former California attorney general, is known for her sharp questioning. She said ahead of the debate that she won’t be fact-checking Pence.
* Pence is likely to face criticism of the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, a prominent theme of the Biden campaign. Pence, who leads the administration’s coronavirus task force, is likely to be asked about the way Trump has minimized the severity of the virus that has killed more than 210,000 people in the U.S., even after the president was released from the hospital.
* Pence is also likely to be asked to explain Trump’s surprise announcement Tuesday that he was ending talks with Democratic leaders on a new stimulus package, hours after Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell called for greater spending to avoid damaging the economic recovery.
* Another topic is likely to be the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Harris sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will hold confirmation hearings this month. As vice president, Pence would deliver the tie-breaking vote in the Senate.
* Harris is also likely to be asked about her views on law and order, in particular the movement to defund the police. Pence is known for his very conservative views, specifically his opposition to LGBTQ marriage.