Pence and Harris debate at the University of Utah

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Media outlets setup outside Kingsbury Hall ahead of Wednesday's vice-presidential matchup on the campus of University of Utah, Oct. 5, 2020.

6:30 p.m.: Who is in the hall

The vice presidential debate will look different this year in a number of ways, among them the much smaller live audience allowed inside to accommodate for social distancing.

About 20 seats for guests were set up at Kingsbury Hall in front of the stage, spaced at least 6 feet apart, ahead of the debate Wednesday night. Behind that was theatre-style seating, with rows left empty “in observance of social distancing.”

At least 60 seats were given to University of Utah students based on a lottery.

Tickets for the event come with instructions for the audience, including that they not express “approval or disapproval of events on stage as the debate unfolds” in an effort not to detract from the event for those watching from home.

The tickets also note that members of the audience can’t hold the Commission on Presidential Debates or the event host liable for any sickness, including COVID-19.

Attendees and media set up in a tent outside of the event space had to take a COVID-19 test before being granted access into the perimeter.

Gov. Gary Herbert is among the guests in the audience. He said, “I think they have done everything they needed to do and probably more to make sure there’s a safe environment for not just the debate participants but the audience and everyone working here."

— Taylor Stevens

5:30 p.m.: The University of Utah says its taking advantage of the spotlight

With less than two hours until the historic debate, organizers at the University of Utah are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“This has been a monumental effort and everything is really coming together today,” said Jason Perry with the Hinckley Institute of Politics.

He said about 300 student volunteers have been working to make sure the event goes well. He added he was almost ready to relax, but not quite.

“Everyone is anticipating this particular debate. That’s what everyone is talking about, seeing these two candidates together and hearing them discuss the issues,” he said.

When the debate ends at 8:30 tonight, Perry believes the positive afterglow from a successful event should continue for Utah into the future, similar to the long-lasting benefits for the state from the 2002 Olympics. Simply put, you can’t buy the kind of positive publicity the university is getting right now.

“You see members of the media here getting to know our state. They’re getting to know our university. This is just a great opportunity for us, and we’re taking advantage of it,” he said.

— Bryan Schott

5 p.m.: So much swag

There are T-shirts, face masks, water bottles, coasters and buttons celebrating the historic vice presidential debate at the University of Utah, but one of the most coveted pieces of “swag” circulating is the official debate coin.

The disc has the debate logo, date and location on both sides, one red, and one blue.

(Bryan Schott | The Salt Lake Tribune) Coins were among the memorabilia marking the 2020 vice presidential debate held at the University of Utah on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020.

“When neither side can come to a decision, this is what they’ll use,” joked Jason Perry, director of the U.'s Hinckley Institute of Politics.

And, no, you can’t have mine.

— Bryan Schott

3 p.m.: Pence tours the debate stage

Pence and his wife have wrapped up their walk-through of Kingsbury Hall, where the debate will kick off in just a few hours.

After spending 45 minutes at the site, the vice presidential motorcade returned to Hotel Monaco, where Pence is staying. Family members including Karen Pence joined Pence for the tour of the debate venue, according to the vice president’s chief of staff. No problems surfaced during the walk-through, he added.

Bethany Rodgers

2:45 p.m.: Carter talks up Harris' talent

Former Democratic President Jimmy Carter plans to watch the debate, and will be cheering for Kamala Harris.

“We need champions in the White House like Joe Biden and Kamala Harris who understand the needs and values of working Georgians,” he said in a statement distributed by the Biden campaign.

“Kamala Harris has the talent and charisma to lead our great nation as our next vice president, and I know Americans will see that on full display during tonight’s debate.”

—Lee Davidson

2:20 p.m.: Utah’s Mike Lee criticizes Harris and California

Utah Sen. Mike Lee wrote a national opinion column for Fox News that took numerous shots at Harris.

“If elected, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden would be the oldest person ever elected to a first term as president. And his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., already seems to be measuring the drapes. Just last month she referred to ‘a Harris administration’ before correcting herself by adding ‘Biden-Harris administration.’” Lee wrote.

He noted that Harris likes to say that California is leading the way on many issues, but he questioned where California leads.

“Before becoming the Attorney General of California in 2011, Harris served as the District Attorney for San Francisco for seven years. This is the same San Francisco where foreign drug cartels use illegal immigrants to run open-air drug markets throughout the city,” Lee wrote.

He added that San Francisco is a “sanctuary city” that will not help Immigrations and Customs Enforcement detain undocumented immigrants. “But there is no sanctuary for San Francisco’s residents who have to avoid all the used needles and human waste from the thousands of addicts in their city,” he wrote.

Lee wrapped up writing, “There is a reason thousands of U-Haul vans are departing California and heading to Oregon, Texas, Idaho, and yes, even my home state of Utah, every year: the progressive policies that a Harris-Biden administration want to inflict on the rest of the country have made California unlivable for middle-class Americans.”

— Lee Davidson

1:50 p.m.: Trump team leaves ticket for Tupac

The Trump campaign has left a ticket for tonight’s debate for rapper Tupac Shakur, who died more than two decades ago, campaign adviser Jason Miller reportedly confirmed during a press call Wednesday.

“This is not a joke,” wrote Amber Athey, Washington editor at Spectrum USA in reporting the decision on Twitter.

If not a joke, it is at least a jab.

The move comes after Harris named Tupac Shakur the “best rapper alive” during a question-and-answer session at an NAACP Conference last month.

CNN commentator Angela Rye quickly reminded the California senator that Shakur, who is considered among the most influential rappers of all time, had died long ago.

“Not alive, I know, I keep doing that,” Harris said with a laugh.

Shakur was killed in a drive-by shooting in 1996 and has since been the frequent subject of conspiracy theories spread by fans who believe he faked his own death.

— Taylor Stevens

1:30 p.m. Debate helping hotels and restaurants

Salt Lake City’s Downtown Alliance says Wednesday’s debate is a “win for the downtown economy” as the coronavirus pandemic wears on.

In a news release, the organization said the debate has brought 2,500 people to Salt Lake City this week and that those visitors have booked 7,500 room nights in the capital city’s hotels.

“These visitors are frequenting restaurants, bars and merchants downtown providing a welcome influx of spending in the downtown economy,” Downtown Alliance CEO Derek Miller said.

The Downtown Alliance estimates visitors will spend more than $7 million this week. And it anticipates that debate coverage will elevate Salt Lake City’s national standing, creating economic development opportunities in turn.

Officials have estimated the debate would cost anywhere from $5 million to $6 million to host.

— Taylor Stevens

1 p.m.: Pence’s guests include parents of murdered hostage

Pence will be accompanied tonight by the parents of murdered Islamic State hostage Kayla Mueller, according to Axios.

Mueller’s parents, Carl and Marsha, spoke at the Republican National Convention, blaming the Obama administration for failing to save their daughter’s life. They also praised President Donald Trump for the raid that killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

“If Donald Trump had been president when Kayla was captured, she would be here today,” said Carl Mueller during that speech.

— Bryan Schott

12:45 p.m.: Debate bingo cards

The University of Utah is gearing up for a game of debate bingo, releasing 10 unique cards that viewers can download to play along.

Included on the squares are terms like “cancel culture,” “golf,” “monuments,” “mental fitness” and “Dr. Anthony Fauci.”

The cards are available online at debate2020.utah.edu/debate-bingo.

— Bethany Rodgers

12:40 p.m.: Face mask rules

Expect a stricter approach to mask-wearing in the debate hall.

According to a fact sheet distributed by the Commission on Presidential Debates, “everyone in the debate hall will be subject to a variety of health safety protocols."

The sheet says anyone who is not wearing a mask, aside from the two candidates and debate moderator, will be escorted from the debate hall. There also will be the much-talked-about Plexiglas dividers.

At last week’s presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden masks were required for audience members. Several members of Trump’s entourage did not wear masks and rebuffed efforts to get them to comply with the rules.

— Bryan Schott

Noon: Who played Pence and Harris in the debate prep

From the moment a candidate steps onto the debate stage, they’re flying solo. That’s why preparation is a crucial factor that could spell the difference between a solid performance and disaster.

Pence turned to former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to prep him for the event at Kingsbury Hall. Former Florida Attorney General Pam Biondi served as a stand-in for Harris during Pence’s pre-debate practice before he traveled to Utah. Pence’s team felt Biondi’s experience as a prosecutor made her an effective sparing partner.

Former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg reportedly played the part of Pence during Harris' prep sessions. The South Bend Mayor was selected for his debating skills as well as his knowledge of Pence’s record as governor of Indiana.

— Bryan Schott

Noon: Harris' guests include two Utah lawmakers who plan on ‘fan-girling’

State Reps. Sandra Hollins and Angela Romero are among the Utahns invited by the Biden campaign to attend tonight’s vice presidential debate.

Romero said she’s hoping the event will give her a chance to talk to Harris, whom she’s long admired but never met.

“I’m just enamored of her,” Romero, a Salt Lake City Democrat, said. “So I’ll be fan-girling.”

Harris' identity as a woman of color is also meaningful for Romero, who along with Hollins is one of only six racial and ethnic minority lawmakers in the Utah Legislature.

“She represents the voice of many of us here in the state of Utah,” Romero said. “And being a woman of color, it’s even more exciting to see how she inspires other women to run for office.”

She predicted that tonight’s encounter between vice presidential candidates will stand in sharp contrast to the chaotic first presidential debate in which President Donald Trump repeatedly insulted and interrupted Biden.

Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant, who confirmed that he’s on tonight’s guest list, predicted that the face-off will be “the most important vice presidential debate that we’ve ever had.”

“This debate will hopefully focus on policy issues and probably be the only opportunity we have to really see where the political differences are between the two candidates,” he said.

Merchant said Scott Howell, the former Democratic state senator who is heading up Biden’s campaign locally, also got an invitation to the event.

— Bethany Rodgers

11:15 a.m.: Pence and Harris test negative

The vice president and his wife, Karen Pence, tested negative for COVID-19 on Wednesday, according to White House officials.

Pence’s negative result came back a day after Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior adviser, tested positive for the coronavirus.

Miller’s wife, Katie Miller, works as Pence’s communications director and had a bout with the disease in May. She has tested negative for it since last seeing her husband, The Associated Press reports. Katie Miller was in Salt Lake City to help Pence ahead of the debate but left after learning of her husband’s diagnosis.

Harris' spokesperson said she’s also tested negative for the virus in advance of tonight’s debate, according to The Hill.

— Bethany Rodgers

11 a.m.: Expect a barrier between the candidates

Vice President Mike Pence’s team has agreed to the placement of a Plexiglas barrier in front of him during tonight’s debate with Sen. Kamala Harris at the University of Utah.

The decision resolves a tug-of-war between the Trump and Biden campaigns over whether physical barriers are medically necessary to protect the vice presidential candidates from COVID-19. Pence representatives had resisted the idea and said physical distancing and other precautions were sufficient to protect the candidates.

However, on Tuesday night, Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, said Pence advisers had rescinded their objections, The Washington Post reported.

“They said if Senator Harris feels safer to have two Plexiglas dividers up, we have no objections,” Fahrenkopf said, according to the Post.

Meanwhile, experts are saying the barriers are essentially “splatter shields” that wouldn’t do much to keep the socially distant candidates safe from airborne droplets carrying the virus. Scientists quoted by The New York Times say regulating ventilation and airflow is much more important in preventing disease transmission on the debate stage.

Bethany Rodgers

This story will be updated.