NBC News- WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris are expected to take the debate stage Wednesday night against an extraordinary backdrop that has raised the stakes of an event that for decades has been a routine, inconsequential fixture of presidential elections.
No vice president has debated while the president is known to be sick and possibly still in the hospital. And never have two vice presidential nominees debated at a time when Americans are giving far more than cursory thought to how each might lead in the top job.
"Vice presidential debates oftentimes get a lot of attention at the moment, and then a few days later they're forgotten," presidential historian Michael Beschloss said. "But this year it may be different."
The spotlight on the debate in Salt Lake City had already intensified after President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden's chaotic showing last week in their initial debate and as the country grapples with a global pandemic and a slumping economy.
The president's allies, in particular, were looking to Pence to make up for that 27 days before the election.
"He needs to deliver a very solid performance, and he needs to find a way to win," an ally said.
A national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday showed that Biden's lead over the president jumped to 14 points after the debate and that voters said by 2-to-1 that Biden performed better than Trump.
In the weeks before Trump tested positive for the coronavirus and was hospitalized, Pence and Harris had spent hours preparing for their debate — poring over policy briefing books, workshopping responses to anticipated attacks and holding lengthy mock sessions.
Both spent time over the weekend preparing for Wednesday's debate, which was still scheduled to take place in person. Harris was in Salt Lake City on Friday, while Pence, who was in Washington, is expected to travel to Utah on Monday.
They will be seated 12 feet apart, according to three people familiar with the planning, rather than the original 7 feet of separation.
Aides to Pence and Harris said that the president's health doesn't significantly alter their heavily prepared approaches to the debate but that it has forced them to rethink their tones.
For Harris that means criticizing Trump's handling of the pandemic in a way that is sensitive to his battle with the virus himself.
And Pence now enters the debate having to defend Trump's repeated downplaying of the pandemic — and flouting of public health recommendations — while Trump and a growing number of other Republicans are sick after having followed the White House's lead.
Tone had already been a focus for the Pence and Harris teams. The candidates had been practicing how to avoid what each side sees as potential pitfalls regarding race and gender, both of which will inherently be part of the debate.
Harris is the only woman or person of color on either ticket.
Pence's preparations have included practicing ways to best Harris without opening himself up to criticism that he is acting in a disrespectful or sexist way. People familiar with the preparations said an emphasis is on the importance of a respectful tone. Or, as one ally put it, Pence is being advised "not to attack a woman."
There has also been an effort to mix up Pence's debate team. Most of the key players in his inner circle are white men. Trump allies have suggested that they include others in preparations, such as Pam Bondi, who knew Harris from the six years they both served as attorneys general, Bondi in Florida and Harris in California.
Some of Trump's advisers thought Bondi would be a better fit to play Harris in mock sessions than former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has been involved and who played Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., during Pence's debate prep in 2016. Those familiar with the discussions didn't know whether Bondi had joined the team, and she and Pence's office didn't respond.
Harris' preparations have taken into account how to forcefully make her case against Trump and Pence without fueling potential stereotypes around gender and race. Her allies have counseled her on walking that line, although Harris is familiar with the dynamic, having run for statewide office and been a presidential candidate.
Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, has advised Harris to be "firm and effective" in her rebuttals but to "do it in a way that doesn't scare or alienate voters."
The debate will be moderated by a woman — Susan Page, the Washington bureau chief for USA Today — which Harris allies said at the very least can't hurt.
Pence's aides have tried to keep details of his preparations secret, instructing outside allies not to discuss them with the media. Pence told Trump supporters Thursday that he planned to "take the fight to the Biden-Harris agenda." That's expected to include trying to define Harris as a force pulling Biden to the left of the Democratic Party.
Harris has been preparing to focus on Trump and to cast Pence as an accomplice in his boss's wrongs, according to people familiar with the matter.
"This debate is about Donald Trump. This debate is not about Mike Pence," a person familiar with her preparations said. "He's complicit in Donald Trump's failures."
And, a Harris ally said, she can make the case that even a member of the vice president's own team agrees, with former Pence aide Olivia Troye having spoken out against Trump's handling of the coronavirus.
Harris' advisers expect Pence to have a good debate. They see him as an effective debater, saying he beat Kaine in 2016. They also view Pence's congenial, even-keeled demeanor as one of Harris' challenges, in that his delivery makes it harder to counter statements that they argue are falsehoods.
"We are preparing to debate someone who's going to lie, but lie with a smile," the person familiar with her preparations said, adding that Harris will try to balance criticizing Trump's record and outlining what a Biden presidency would do.
Pence has held multiple debate sessions, some of them stretching for hours. Harris' preparations have mostly taken place at her Washington offices. She uses index cards, and some of her allies play Pence in mock sessions, including former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Both campaigns expect that after the Trump-Biden debate, more Americans might watch a vice presidential debate to try to find out what each candidate's agenda actually is. They also expect Wednesday's debate to be far less contentious than the one between Biden and Trump.
Pence and Harris are set to take the same post-debate approach as Trump and Biden, with plans to hit the campaign trail Thursday. The Trump campaign announced that Pence would hold events in multiple states. Harris is scheduled to campaign with Biden in Arizona.