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Vice presidential debate could be 'polar opposite' of Trump-Biden affair

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris will square off at 9 p.m. Wednesday at the University of Utah in a debate that political observers are expecting to have a much different feel than the combative presidential one a week earlier.

"It will be polar opposite of the first debate," predicted Aaron Kall, director of debates at the University of Michigan, who described the vice presidential candidates as "younger" and "not as irritable" as their partners on the ballot.

"My guess is that both are going to try to go above and beyond to be professional and show dignity and respect," said Jenell Leonard, a Republican and owner of the Lansing-based consulting firm Marketing Resource Group.

Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks during the third day of the Democratic National Convention, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del.

Twenty-seven days before the election, Wednesday will bring the lone debate between Harris, the liberal Democratic former prosecutor from California, and Pence, the conservative Republican former radio host from Indiana.

On Sept. 29, President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden frequently clashed and spoke over each other in their first debate in Cleveland. The Republican incumbent repeatedly interrupted the former vice president with Biden asking Trump to "shut up" at one point.

Afterward, there was public backlash about the tone of the event. A Detroit News and WDIV poll of 600 likely Michigan voters found among those who watched, a plurality of 41% said neither candidate won. The survey had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Biden led Trump by 9 points in the same poll a month before the Nov. 3 election, pointing to the need for Republicans to try to gain momentum Wednesday night in Salt Lake City. Trump won Michigan by 10,704 votes in 2016.

"He’s got a tough job to do tonight," Kall said of Pence, the former governor of Indiana. "You can’t reverse a lead like that in a 90-minute debate."

Pence, 61, will have to avoid frequently interrupting Harris, like Trump did to Biden last week, and will need to talk policy, Kall added. The vice president is an experienced GOP messenger. The Columbus, Indiana, native hosted a radio show before being elected to the U.S. House in 2000.

Vice President Mike Pence speaks on the third day of the Republican National Convention at Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine in Baltimore, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020.

During a portion of his time in Congress, Pence served as the House Republican conference chairman, helping manage the caucus's communications strategy. He became governor of Indiana in 2012 before being selected as Trump's running mate in 2016.

"He’s got a great background for something like this," Kall said.

But it's another role that Pence has that could be the focus Wednesday: leader of the White House's coronavirus task force. Democrats have emphasized Trump's struggles in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. As of Wednesday, the United States had confirmed 7.5 million cases with more than 211,000 deaths linked to the virus, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Michigan had reported 130,842 cases and 6,847 deaths as of Wednesday, according to state data.

The vice presidential debate comes less than a week after Trump himself revealed he had tested positive for COVID-19 and spent three nights at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

"Kamala Harris is going to do her best to keep everything focused on the COVID response," Leonard of Marketing Resource Group said.

Polling shows that when the focus is on COVID-19, Biden does better, she said, and when the focus is on the economy, Trump does better.

On Friday, during a visit to Grand Rapids, Biden called for a unified approach to combating the virus.

"We have to take this virus seriously," he said in Grand Rapids. "It's not going away automatically. We have to do our part to be responsible."

Harris, 55, grew up in Oakland, California. She was the district attorney for San Francisco before becoming California's attorney general. She was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2016, becoming the second African-American woman and first South Asian-American senator, according to her official biography.

She ran for president in the Democratic primary before dropping her bid in December. Biden selected her as his running mate in August.

On Wednesday, Harris needs to avoid making a major mistake and show voters that she can be president down the road, Kall said. Biden is 77 years old and might not run for a second term, Kall said.

In addition to the economy and COVID-19, Harris and Pence will likely talk about the U.S. Supreme Court. Trump on Sept. 26 nominated Judge Amy Coney Barrett, who, like Pence, is from Indiana, to fill the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's seat on the nation's high court.

Democrats have contended that the winner of the Nov. 3 election should get to pick who fills the seat, and Harris serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which handles Supreme Court nominations.

It will be up to Pence to help sell Barrett's nomination, Leonard said.

cmauger@detroitnews.com