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Robert Gehrke: What Mike Pence and Kamala Harris need to do to claim victory in the debate

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Wednesday’s vice presidential debate is supercharged with additional significance for two reasons. First, the two men at the top of the ticket have spent a combined 151 years on the earth, and one of them has COVID-19 (I’ll let you guess which).

Whoever wins will be the oldest person to hold the office, assuming they serve the full four years. So who holds the office of vice president might be more important than any time in history.

Second, there is a decent chance that we’ll be witnessing a preview of the 2024 presidential debate, no matter who wins the White House in November.

If Joe Biden wins, I suspect he’ll only serve one term and it’s unlikely President Donald Trump will be able to get the Constitution amended to let him run a third time. That would make Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democrat, and Vice President Mike Pence, the Republican, the likeliest contenders for their party nominations in four years.

First they have to get through their debate in Salt Lake City.

Frankly, this debate shouldn’t be happening, at least not in the format it is. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the White House Coronavirus Task Force — chaired by, let me check this, Mike Pence — anyone exposed to a confirmed COVID case should quarantine for two weeks.

Common-sense, science-based precautions evidently don’t apply any more now after a large swath of the White House staff has been infected than they did before the outbreak.

Pence’s staff was even quibbling Tuesday about whether there should be a Plexiglas sneeze-guard between him and Harris on the debate stage. Pence, who attended events with people who now have the virus, should probably be in a hermetically sealed pouch.

Nonetheless, the show must go on.

And while you can be sure that both sides will proclaim victory afterward, here’s what each has to do to actually make it count.

Sen. Kamala Harris

Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks at Shaw University during a campaign visit in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, Sept. 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

• Play the role of prosecutor.

Harris is the former attorney general of California and that prosecutorial demeanor comes through in Senate hearings and in the Democratic primary debates.

“I think about what she did to Joe [in the primary debates], she nearly eviscerated him,” said Scott Howell, Biden’s Utah chairman.

Harris will need to show that same toughness in building the case against the Trump presidency’s record on immigration, racial justice, climate change, women’s issues and international relations and, in doing so, draw a clear distinction between the two tickets.

• Hammer the administration over the pandemic.

Pence has been the lead on a coronavirus response that was troubled from Day One, right through the administration’s ongoing failure to protect its own people. It was a weakness for Trump before, but in the first debate since the president contracted the virus, Harris has an opportunity to make it the defining issue for the rest of the campaign.

At the same time, she will need to convince voters she and Biden can do better. According to Howell, Harris promised to “always tell the American people the facts and the science.”

• Avoid the civil unrest trap.

In the presidential debate, we saw Trump try to pin civil unrest in parts of the country on Biden. Harris has to be a strong law-and-order candidate to satisfy suburban voters, but that comes with some risk of alienating the liberal base, since a knock on her during her presidential run was that she was too tough as a California prosecutor.

Vice President Mike Pence

Vice President Mike Pence speaks to members of the media at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, as he leaves Washington for Utah ahead of the vice presidential debate schedule for Oct. 7. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

• Pivot and attack.

Pence will take a hit on the coronavirus. With 210,000 dead and nearly 57% of Americans disapproving of the administration’s response, it’s almost inevitable. His job will be to limit the damage and try to go on the offensive.

Don Peay, a prominent Utah Trump supporter, thinks the liability is overblown. Pence will have to “reiterate that he works for a very strong president who by tomorrow night will probably be running around the White House,” Peay told me. “The Trumps are strong people physically and mentally.”

• Appeal to the conservative base.

Trump has slipped in the polls since the last debate and Pence’s job will be to stop the bleeding and solidify support. He has always had appeal among conservative Christians, and he will probably try to focus the debate on the administration’s reshaping of the courts (including the Supreme Court), being tough on immigration and cutting taxes.

“They’re running on a record of results and achievement and that’s where they shine,” Peay said.

Pence will also probably try to paint Biden and Harris as radicals on abortion and religious liberties.

If those are the issues that define the debate, it would be considered a win for Team Trump.

• Be presidential.

The popular perception is that Pence is a stabilizing force in a chaotic White House. The more composed and presidential he seems, the more comforting that will be in the minds of voters.

Most important for both candidates: Act like adults. It can’t devolve into the kind of spectacle we saw in the first presidential fracas. Another display like that and voters will tune out, and then nobody wins.

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