The stage is set ahead of the vice presidential debate in Kingsbury Hall of the University of Utah Oct. 7, 2020 in Salt Lake City. Credit – Eric Baradat—AFP/Getty Images
On one level, Vice President Mike Pence and California Sen. Kamala Harris have a relatively easy task ahead of them in Tuesday’s presidential debate: make it more cordial than their bosses inaugural debate last week. But even if they accomplish that — and given the low bar, there’s little reason to think they won’t — both candidates have individual challenges they face on stage tonight in Salt Lake City.
Pence will almost certainly find himself on the defense, answering for the Trump Administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, which polling shows most Americans deem lackluster at best. He will also have to defend his decision to ignore public health guidelines and continue in-person campaign events this week, even as his boss is now sidelined with the virus.
While Harris won’t have to answer these questions — she’s not currently Vice President and the Biden campaign has taken significantly more safety precautions in its own campaign – it won’t be a breeze for her either. While she has earned a reputation as a formidable debater, women on the stage have historically had to walk a fine line not to appear aggressive towards their male counterparts; just ust look at Hillary Clinton four years ago, forced to remain calm while Trump deemed her a “nasty woman.”
The debate before the debate: plexiglass
Pence and Harris may not wear masks during the debate, but viewers won’t be able to escape the imagery of the coronavirus thanks to two plexiglass dividers that have been installed on the stage next to the desks where the candidates will sit.
Both candidates have been tested for the virus before the event, but the partitions are intended to keep the virus from spreading across the stage in the event that one of the candidates is infected but is too early in the course of disease to get a positive test result. In keeping with the candidates’ differing approaches to the pandemic, the Trump campaign had argued that the dividers weren’t necessary in recent days, while the Biden campaign argued that they were needed given the scale of the coronavirus outbreak at the White House.
Despite the extensive back and forth about the barriers between the campaigns, it remains unclear how effective they would actually be in the event that one of the candidates is infected. The candidates are already sitting 12 feet apart — a social distancing request from the Biden team — and virus experts say the auditorium’s ventilation is more likely to be an issue than the candidates spitting on each other.