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Analysis: What to expect in the Pence-Harris debate based on their past performances

Donald Trump had lost the first presidential debate. Democrats wanted the final weeks of the campaign to focus on the Republican nominee’s weaknesses. Mike Pence’s task was defending Trump, making a Democratic victory sound like a nightmare and disputing the Democrats' central premise: that a Trump presidency would weaken and divide the country.

“If Donald Trump had said all of the things that you’ve said he said in the way you said he said them, he still wouldn’t have a fraction of the insults that Hillary Clinton leveled when she said that half of our supporters were a basket of deplorables,” Pence told Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., Clinton’s running mate. “She said they were irredeemable, they were not American.” That went further than Clinton - she had said racists were “thankfully” not representative of America. But Pence landed the blow, and Kaine didn’t respond.

By acclimation, it was the best moment for Pence in a 2016 debate that he won decisively. His mission here tomorrow: Do it again, with a new opponent, under different conditions. The president’s illness has supercharged the importance of what is typically the cycle’s least pivotal debate. Pence, who portrayed himself last time as a heartland outsider, is now the head of a coronavirus task force for a White House that has struggled to contain the pandemic. And Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., whom Republicans once talked up as a focus of their campaign, has yet to come under sustained attack.

That will change tonight, by necessity, because the Trump-Pence campaign is in more trouble than it was four years ago. Pence is in a solid position to change that, constantly underrated but effective in these settings. Harris may be under more scrutiny than any vice-presidential nominee in this century, with Trump allies sometimes blurting out the idea that Joe Biden could die in office, handing the presidency to his lesser-known and more liberal running mate.

The president’s own sickness complicated that strategy, putting new attention on Pence as a president-in-waiting. Trump’s departure from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center complicated it further, nixing a scenario that Harris had prepared for, in which attacks on a hospitalized president could have backfired. There’s more public speculation than there was four years ago about the presidential nominees' health and age; consequently, there’s going to be more attention on whether Harris and Pence look like plausible commanders in chief.

Unlike last week’s debate in Cleveland, preceded by months of Trump campaign mockery of Biden’s age and mental sharpness, this will unfold with no expectations-lowering for either candidate. Pence’s last appearance in this venue was a success. Harris, whose last debate was 11 months ago against fellow Democratic presidential candidates, has a vocal cheering section, the #KHive, which has been fantasizing for weeks about how she could eviscerate Pence. Pence’s image as a bland Trump defender doesn’t match reality, and neither does Harris’s online image as a knife-fighter. Here’s what you learn if you pore over their past debates.

Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

How Harris debates

For those who never saw her on the primary campaign trail, Harris’s best and worst moments both came at debates; the fight she picked with Biden over desegregation and busing, and the fight she forfeited with Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, over her California record. (Harris declined to engage Gabbard, criticizing her only when the debate was over.)

But one-on-one debates are not like those primary forums, and Harris has not been part of a debate like this since four years ago. That was when she faced Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., for the first and only time, in a runoff between generally like-minded Democrats in California’s “top-two” primary system. Harris hasn’t debated a Republican at all since 2010, during her close race for attorney general against Steve Cooley, the Republican district attorney of Los Angeles.

The latter debate, with a less-charismatic Republican who portrayed Harris as too weak and liberal for the job, was more revealing. Cooley began it with a surprise, welcoming the family members of a murdered police officer to emphasize that Harris opposed the death penalty for the killer. “They’re supporting me, along with 47 other law enforcement organizations,” Cooley said, exactly the sort attack Pence could try to land on Harris.

But Harris didn’t blink. She pivoted to her strongest political arguments against Cooley: his support from the energy industry and her experience cracking down on recidivism in San Francisco, where she was district attorney. Much of the debate turned on contemporary California issues that don’t echo in 2010, but on one that does - the first major lawsuit to invalidate the Affordable Care Act - Harris was crisp, asking how Cooley could use state resources to attack the law when they had “a state full of people who are uninsured.”

The 2016 debate with Sanchez went more smoothly and had lower stakes; it’s remembered only for how it ended, with the 56-year-old Sanchez doing a “dabbing” motion out of view of some TV cameras. Harris’s job was to do no harm to her front-running campaign, and she didn’t, hitting some of the themes that would reappear in her run for president, such as how the key issues were the ones that mattered “when the folks I meet across this state wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning.”

The 2019 primary debates were trickier, and Harris suffered from the potency of her first showdown with Biden: Her next five debates lacked such a moment, and as she declined in polls, the senator could get ignored on the sides of the stage. That was often due to a strategy not rewarded in a multicandidate debate: bringing the conversation back to the general election and how she’d “prosecute the case” against the president, as an ineffective plutocrat.

“For those working people who are working two and three jobs, if they don’t pay that credit card by the end of the month, they get a penalty,” Harris said in her final debate at-bat. “For the people who don’t pay their rent, they get evicted. For the people who shoplift, they go to jail. We need the same set of rules for everybody.”

Harris was far less effective talking through her campaign’s policies, but two things have changed since then. One, the maze-like discussions of left-wing policies, such as Medicare-for-all, are over. Two, Harris no longer has to talk through her own campaign’s policies. She has to defend and explain Biden’s, without getting tangled in details, while bringing the focus back to the Trump record. Harris has done few policy-focused interviews since becoming Biden’s vice-presidential nominee. Pence has far, far more experience selling his running mate.

“He’s a good debater,” Harris told donors last month. “So I’m so concerned, like I can only disappoint.”

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)

How Pence debates

The vice president’s 2016 debate put him a new position, one he excelled in: defending Trump while introducing himself. He’d grappled with a Democrat more recently than Harris has with a Republican, facing down Democrat John Gregg, an avuncular state legislator, to win the Indiana governor’s mansion in 2012.

It wasn’t one-on-one - the Libertarian nominee shared the stage - but the skills Pence had honed as a radio commentator and five-term member of Congress were deployed effectively. The key was often in turning to Gregg and asking if he could really object to Pence’s common-sense ideas. Really? Really?

“Giving children in underprivileged families more choices, John, is just the right thing to do,” Pence said at one point, discussing school choice.

The 2016 debate was trickier, but Kaine had a strategy that Pence could poke holes through. In a post-debate interview with The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos, Kaine said he “needed to make sure that the day after . . . there were no new negative stories about Hillary.” But Pence had 30 years of anti-Clinton animus to draw on, and new stories (a la “deplorables”) to cite, and when Kaine attacked effectively, Pence dismissed him as over-prepped and evasive.

“Did you work on that one a long time?” Pence snarked after Kaine said Trump had a “personal Mount Rushmore” of foreign dictators. “Because that had a lot of really creative lines in it.”

Pence largely ignored Kaine and his record. Republicans have not wanted to take that approach with Harris. But after announcing that they would portray the Democrat as an ultraliberal, on track to replace Biden or rule him behind the scenes, Pence’s party hasn’t shown its cards. Attacks have aired for a day before being swept away in the news cycle: Harris as a phony, Harris endorsing Medicare-for-all and not ruling out the expansion of the Supreme Court, Harris’s voting record (the most liberal in 2019, partly because of which votes she skipped).

There’s more that the campaign has focused on with digital ads, such Harris’s tweet raising money for the Minnesota Freedom Fund, a group flooded with cash after the protests of racial inequity; some of the prisoners whose bail was paid by MFF had criminal records. That topic hasn’t been fruitful for the GOP, with Biden and Harris perfectly ready to defend and spin their records on crime. But when debating Kaine, Pence was comfortable accusing Democrats of becoming anti-police, an argument the Trump campaign has put millions of dollars of ads behind this year.

“What we need to do is assert a stronger leadership at the national level to support law enforcement,” Pence said. “You just heard Senator Kaine reject stop-and-frisk. Well, I would suggest to you that the families that live in our inner cities, that are besieged by crime-” Pence was cut off, but he pulled Kaine into a discussion far from the Trump record Kaine had come to talk about.

This year’s Democratic ticket deprives Pence of some of his most effective tactics from 2016. Biden simply doesn’t have Clinton’s low favorable ratings, and none of the scandals aired about him have had the sticking power of the investigation into Clinton’s emails. Four years ago, Pence repeatedly cut through Kaine’s criticisms by bringing the subject back to Clinton.

“Honestly, Senator, we would know a lot more about it if Hillary Clinton would just turn over the 33,000 emails that she refused to turn over in her private server,” Pence told Kaine after the Virginian tried to refute attacks on the Clinton family’s charitable foundation.

That strategy would make no sense in 2020, where there is more attention being paid to the nominees' running mates. Unlike Trump, Pence does not get lost in the details of Democratic scandals that may not have broken through outside conservative media.

In campaign appearances, where he has only occasionally attacked Harris, Pence has tried to exploit perhaps the key rhetorical difference between the Democrats. Biden’s instinct when asked about demands from the left, or from protesters, is to distance himself; Harris’s instinct is to side with them. Pence has the chance to attack Harris over statements that were buried in the news cycle, such as her endorsement of police budget cuts in Los Angeles (“I applaud [Mayor] Eric Garcetti for doing what he’s done,” Harris had said.) There’s less to gain by forcing Harris to defend Biden - that’s easy - than by elevating the idea that Biden picked a far more left-wing running mate and poke at their differences through Harris’s own statements.

Pence, a dedicated social conservative, is also more comfortable than Trump in arguing for a conservative court. Last week, Trump appeared to surprise Biden by denying that Roe v. Wade was “on the ballot,” saying it wasn’t clear how Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett would rule on abortion cases. Pence has consistently argued what Republicans think and Democrats fear: that conservative judges can roll back abortion rights and that if Democrats are forced to defend the details of late-term abortions, they’ll lose.

“A society can be judged by how it deals with its most vulnerable, the aged, the infirm, the disabled, and the unborn,” Pence said at the debate with Kaine. “I believe it with all my heart. And I couldn’t be more proud to be standing with a pro-life candidate in Donald Trump.”

As he did effectively all night, Pence portrayed Kaine as a dissembler, distracting from Clinton’s problems and agenda. That won’t be repeatable in a debate with Harris. But the rest of Pence’s tactics have been effective, and Harris enters this debate less defined than Clinton ever was. Trump-Pence is in a weaker polling position than any incumbent presidential campaign since 1992, and Wednesday’s debate represents one of its last chances for a surprise, or a conversation-changer - one that wouldn’t be wiped out by the president himself in a few hours or days.