6 Standout moments from Harris and Pence at the debate

By Astead W. Herndon and Adam Nagourney

By the standards set by President Donald Trump at his debate with Joe Biden, the matchup on Wednesday night between Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence was almost civil. Almost.

They offered contrasting visions of how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. They talked about China, the economy and the unrest in response to police abuses.

They were as likely not to answer a question as to answer one — though in this case, Pence was probably the winner. Even by the standards of modern debates, Pence ignored questions he presumably did not want to answer and often spoke over Harris and the moderator, Susan Page of USA Today, though at considerably less volume than Trump.

But there was no shortage of revealing and noteworthy moments.

Harris swiftly attacks Pence on the coronavirus.

The first answer from Harris was a window into the strategy of Biden’s campaign: all COVID-19, all the time.

The campaign believes the pandemic response encapsulates every unpopular part of Trump’s administration, and Harris opened the debate by focusing on the federal government’s response to the virus. She was unrelenting, evoking memories of the Democratic presidential primary race, when she promised to “prosecute the case against Donald Trump.”

The early attack on the virus was also significant for media markets. With the debate starting at 9 p.m. ET, both campaigns will have known that the early moments are critical for newspaper deadlines and audience ratings, because live viewership tends to drop as the evening goes on.

With Harris making the pandemic response her first answer, she focused her energy on the issue her campaign is zeroed in on.

Pence hits back on the pandemic.

Pence responded to Harris’ criticism of the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic by talking about the partial ban on travel from China that Trump put in place early this year, when the virus was beginning to spread to the United States, and about efforts to fast-track a vaccine.

But the vice president expressed no regret about being part of the White House nomination ceremony for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s choice for the Supreme Court, where attendees were packed together, many not wearing masks. Among the maskless: Trump, who later tested positive for the virus, and Pence, who is the head of the White House task force on the coronavirus. Pence has tested negative for the virus.

That event on Sept. 26, especially a reception inside the White House, is now seen as a superspreader event, responsible for a surge of coronavirus cases at the highest levels of the federal government.

Pence dismissed the notion that he and the president had set a bad example for Americans, saying that decisions on social distancing and wearing masks were personal and that he trusted Americans to take the appropriate precautions. In doing so, he laid out a key distinction with Harris — and with a majority of Americans, who polls show overwhelmingly support the wearing of masks.

A few hours before the debate, Trump posted a video in which he suggested he had been cured of the coronavirus by an experimental drug cocktail. (Medical experts say he is most likely still battling the illness.)

Pence was never asked about that. He was also not asked if he agreed with the president that people should not be afraid the disease, or what he thought about the president’s removing his mask in front of television cameras as soon as he had returned to the White House from the hospital.

Harris tells Pence to stop interrupting her.

Harris is one of the few women ever selected for a major party’s presidential ticket, and the first woman of color to be chosen as a running mate. Her debate with Pence, a white man from Indiana, was always going to have an undercurrent of gender and racial dynamics.

In this face-off, during which the tone was more cordial than at last week’s presidential debate and issues were the focus, perhaps the most pronounced moments were when Harris chided Pence for interrupting her comments. This also occurred when Pence talked over the moderator, Page.

Still, Pence was conscientious about showing respect and deference to Harris at some points, complimenting her on her barrier-breaking nomination. He and Harris largely tried to project a feeling absent from the first presidential debate: mutual respect.

On health care, Pence ignores a big question.

At one point, Pence was pressed on how the Trump administration would protect coverage for preexisting conditions if it succeeded in persuading a court to throw out the Affordable Care Act. (Trump has pledged to protect such coverage, without offering details on how that might work.)

Pence ignored the question, pivoting to talk about the Supreme Court and abortion. It was an instructive moment; there were many instances in this debate where he glided over questions, very much in keeping with his debate style.

He also avoided saying whether he would support imposing a ban on abortion in Indiana, where he was once governor, if a Supreme Court ideologically realigned by Trump’s judicial appointments threw out Roe v. Wade, sending authority on regulating abortion back to the states.

Neither the moderator, Page, nor Harris pressed him to answer those questions.

Harris, like Biden, dances around the prospect of expanding the Supreme Court.

Harris and Biden have both decided to not answer a question often posed to them by reporters and Republican opponents: Would their administration embrace the idea of expanding the Supreme Court, as progressive Democrats have urged?

Pence asked Harris directly several times to answer the question, and she declined. This is the same posture Biden has previously adopted, on the basis that it would create a short-term distraction benefiting Trump in the election.

A dual truth is at play here: Giving a straight answer on expanding the Supreme Court would generate headlines that the Biden campaign would probably prefer to avoid — but Democrats have also been guarded about their governing plans on certain issues.

If Biden were to win, both moderate and progressive Democrats would hope to have his ear in the Oval Office, and he would face pressure to placate both party wings.

Pence evades a question on a peaceful transfer of power.

Pence stuck by Trump on one critical issue: He evaded a question about what he would do if the president lost the election and wouldn’t commit to a peaceful transfer of power.

“First and foremost, I think we’re going to win this election,” Pence said. “When you talk about accepting the outcome of the election, I must tell you, Senator, your party has spent the last 3 1/2 years trying to overturn the results of the last election. It’s amazing.”

Pence was referring, in part, to the impeachment proceedings against the president. (Remember those?)

The vice president also asserted that Biden and Harris were trying to change the rules of elections to enable voter fraud.

In the final moments of last week’s presidential debate, in another attempt to stoke uncertainty about the integrity of the election, Trump claimed — with no apparent basis in fact — that ballots cast by his supporters had been cast into rivers. Pence had a chance to clear that up. He did not.

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