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Trump's COVID spotlights Pence role as pandemic point man, raises stakes of VP debate

Following his 2016 debate against Hillary Clinton's running mate, Tim Kaine, Pence received high marks — even among liberal media outlets — for a level, dignified performance.

Published: October 5, 2020 4:23pm

Updated: October 7, 2020 9:14am

Political operatives often say the basic role for a vice presidential pick is simple: Do no harm. But this year, with the vice presidential debate now just hours away, the stakes are higher.

The Democrats had made the Trump administration response to COVID-19 the centerpiece of their campaign — even before news broke of President Trump's own positive test for the virus. And no one short of the  president himself has done more to shape that response — policy, execution, and messaging —  than Vice President Mike Pence, the chairman of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

Pence's debate platform before a nationwide audience Wednesday night could be the last best chance in this campaign to fully articulate and defend the administration's response to COVID-19, which Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and running mate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif) — sensing a winning issue — have remorselessly derided as too little too late.

A daily presence in the coronavirus task force press briefings, Pence was repeatedly praised by the president for his role in procuring personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, shifting supply chains to manufacture ventilators and other medical equipment, and accelerating government approval procedures for a vaccine. 

Gallup data show a virtual favorability tie between Pence (41%) and Harris (42%) as of mid-September. Voters overall are more familiar with Pence than with Harris, though Pence has seen a dip in his favorability ratings since the start of the pandemic. 

Amanda Iovino, a Republican strategist at political consulting firm WPA Intelligence, told Just the News that she expects Wednesday's debate to be far less contentious than the bare-knuckled presidential brawl last week. 

"I think [Pence] can speak very intelligently about all that the administration has been doing, and is going to be doing to combat the virus," Iovino told this correspondent on "Just the News AM" on Monday. "Harris, obviously, represents a little bit more of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. And it'll be interesting to see where she splits from Biden and tries to pull them a little bit further to the left." 

The Commission on Presidential Debates on Monday approved the Biden campaign's request for a plexiglass divider to be used between Harris and Pence during the debate. On Monday, Pence spokeswoman Katie Miller reacted to the announcement, saying, "If Sen. Harris wants to use a fortress around herself, have at it."

Following his 2016 debate against Hillary Clinton's running mate, Tim Kaine, Pence received high marks — even among liberal media outlets — for a level, dignified performance that contrasted favorably with his opponent's overanimated style.

John Harwood of CNBC — a reliable Trump critic — said Pence "upstaged" Kaine, noting that moderator Elaine Quijano of CBS News "chided" Kaine for overly aggressive behavior.

Even CNN chimed in with some words of praise. "Mr Pence succeeded," reporter Anthony Zurcher wrote. "Mr Kaine, while unloading a crate of opposition research on Mr Trump, failed ... [Pence] didn't get rattled, and he didn't make any unforced errors that would dominate the headlines tomorrow. Mr Pence was added to the ticket to serve as an emotional counterbalance to Mr Trump's fiery, blunderbuss style — and Tuesday night showed why that was probably a good idea."

"Mike Pence is delivering the debate performance Donald Trump needed a week ago: Focusing on whether voters want change or more of the same," the Los Angeles Times' Doyle McManus wrote in 2016. "Tim Kaine came out as a prototypical attack dog, a role that doesn't suit him especially well. Paradoxically, though, it was Pence who got under Kaine's skin, baiting him to defend the Obama economic record."

"Pence repeatedly bobbed and weaved," the L.A. Times' Mark Z. Barabak continued. "But he was calm and collected. Style points — and style matters a great deal on the debate stage — wins Indiana Gov. Pence the round over an over-caffeinated performance by Virginia's Sen. Kaine."

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