VP debate preview: Trump's COVID diagnosis brings pandemic to center stage

Workers install plexiglass barriers onstage ahead of the vice presidential debate at the University of Utah. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Trump campaign is quickly turning what was expected to be a buttoned-up vice presidential debate into a TV spectacle.

Why it matters: The stakes are much higher tonight. President Trump’s positive COVID diagnosis is a stark reminder that the VP isn’t just an understudy waiting in the wings. With both presidential candidates in their 70s, Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris' roles are more important than ever.

Driving the news: The parents of murdered ISIS hostage Kayla Mueller are on the campaign's debate guest list, Axios' Jonathan Swan reports. So is the deceased rapper Tupac Shakur, the campaign said (A reference to Harris calling him her favorite living rapper).

Logistics: Pence and Harris will be separated by plexiglass barriers, and any guest who refuses to wear a face mask will be removed.

  • Both Pence and Harris have tested negative for the virus prior to the debate, which runs from 9 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. ET at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
  • USA Today's Susan Page will moderate.

What to watch: Pence has a much harder job heading into tonight's debate now that the president and several of his top officials have tested positive for coronavirus.

  • He'll be forced to defend the administration's botched response to the pandemic — an issue the White House has consistently polled poorly on with key voters.
  • Harris plans to use this to her advantage and grill Pence on how, under his leadership as the head of the White House coronavirus task force, hundreds of thousands of Americans have died.
  • But "she’s not there to eviscerate Mike Pence,” Biden campaign adviser Symone Sanders told AP. "She is there to really talk to people at home."

Behind the scenes: Pence has done his homework. He's spent days poring through his briefing books and has held at least two full mock debate sessions with former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, as Axios first reported on Sunday.

  • Sources close to Pence and the Trump campaign tell Axios they feel confident about tonight, and hope Pence’s calm and disciplined demeanor will stand in contrast to the chaos we saw on the debate stage last week.
  • Pence is much more ideological than Trump, they argue, and his policy expertise will allow him to navigate Harris' tough questions.
  • "Pence is an underrated debater. He's one of the most unflappable politicians you'll ever meet," a Trump adviser said. "He'll have some tough questions about the White House getting COVID, but I think it's likely that he'll have a good debate performance. A calming, stable performance."
  • But the campaign also recognizes Harris as a worthy opponent. “We anticipate Harris to be very good. She’s a former prosecutor, obviously a member of the senate, and she’s a good debater,” Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtuah, who is in Utah for the debate, tells Axios.

Pence will focus on making Harris defend her record of supporting progressive legislation, including being a co-sponsor of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ "Medicare for All" bill and an original co-sponsor of the Green New Deal.

  • "She will have to defend the radical agenda that Joe Biden is carrying for the left. …Remember, Kamala Harris was rated the most liberal member of the entire U.S. Senate in 2019,” Murtaugh said.
  • Meanwhile, Harris plans to keep the focus on Trump and the pandemic.
  • Senior aides tell Axios' Alexi McCammond that she intends to make an appeal to the American people by addressing them directly — looking into the camera as she speaks about the more than 200,000 people who died from COVID under the Trump administration's watch.

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