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Vice Presidential Debate Preview

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Tonight is the one and only vice presidential debate for 2020. Vice President Mike Pence and California Senator Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, meet onstage in Salt Lake City, Utah. And the debate comes at a critical juncture for Pence and President Trump. They are down in the polls amid a growing coronavirus cluster in the White House. NPR political correspondent Scott Detrow joins us from Wilmington, Del.

Hey, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey. Good afternoon.

CHANG: Good afternoon. So a lot has changed since last week's presidential debate. I mean, the president gets diagnosed with the coronavirus. And we don't know yet what the topics will actually be for tonight's debate, but this has got to be a key issue tonight. Right?

DETROW: Absolutely. Look; the Trump administration is on its heels after a series of positive cases in and around the White House. And, of course, the administration had already gotten unfavorable views from a lot of voters for its handling of the pandemic. Now it's engulfing the White House. And though Trump was hospitalized - President Trump - his message since being released is that the virus isn't so bad. So I think that and the way the president has acted the last couple of days really do open the door for Senator Harris to be more critical than she might have been if he was still hospitalized. And I think that's especially the case given the fact that his argument is that this is really treatable and it's coming when he's had world-class medical teams working on him.

And let's not forget Pence himself. He is the head of the coronavirus task force. So Kamala Harris' communications director, Liz Allen, spoke to all of this in a preview call that the campaign put on earlier today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIZ ALLEN: Mike Pence is the head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. This is the record that they have to stand up and try to defend tonight, and Senator Harris will make a forceful case that their failed leadership has, in fact, failed the American people.

DETROW: And I think we can get a pretty good sense of what Pence will say based on what he and the rest of Trump administration have been arguing all along. They'll likely talk about this effort to boost vaccines, which could be paying off in the near future, their efforts to ramp up testing, their efforts to boost the economy. But look; this is really tough terrain for him. And the White House cluster only reinforces it.

CHANG: Right. And we should note that we will be hearing from representatives from each campaign elsewhere in the show today.

OK. So not only will the pandemic very likely come up in the debate itself, but can you just talk about how the coronavirus is going to be reshaping the whole way the debate is getting staged tonight?

DETROW: We know that President Trump may very well have been contagious with the coronavirus during last week's presidential debate. That raised a lot of concerns, so Harris' team has lobbied to have the chairs spaced further apart. The organizers agreed. Then Harris - her campaign asked for plexiglass barriers between her and Pence and moderator Susan Page. The organizers agreed. Pence's team really mocked those and pushed back on those. That's despite the fact, of course, that Pence was at the Amy Coney Barrett announcement that seems to be the center of the White House outbreak. He has been working from home in recent days. And we should say that both Pence and Harris have repeatedly tested negative for COVID-19 over the last few days.

CHANG: Right. OK. Let's talk a little bit about how Harris and how Pence are as just, like, debaters. Like, what are their styles? What are you expecting from their performances tonight?

DETROW: Harris is, of course, a longtime prosecutor. She's made a lot of her national reputation at Senate hearings, getting witnesses and nominees on the defensive and often flustering them. Debates are a little different. She has had some standout moments on the debate stage. During the primary, it is very awkward for her that her most notable standout moment was when she attacked Joe Biden, who is, of course, now her running mate.

CHANG: (Laughter) Right.

DETROW: But at times, she was uneven when she was attacked for her record. And she sometimes gave different policy answers at different moments of the same debate. Pence is a seasoned debater. He was thought to have won his debate four years ago with Senator Tim Kaine, but that's more because of a poor performance from Kaine than anything else. He's a former radio host. He's got a pretty smooth delivery. The campaign line all along from the Trump campaign - we saw it again last week - is that Joe Biden is taking orders from the more progressive wing in his party. And Harris is more progressive than Biden, so we can expect to hear a lot of that from Pence tonight, I would imagine.

CHANG: OK. And what would you say are the stakes for Pence and Harris tonight - real quick?

DETROW: Quickly - Pence, having to give a steady performance for a campaign that's on its heels on a lot of different metrics; Harris, I think a lot of it is introducing herself. She is still the least known of the four major candidates - make a case for herself and how she could be vice president.

CHANG: That's NPR's Scott Detrow.

Thank you, Scott.

DETROW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.