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Pence, Harris gear up for VP debate after Trump’s positive covid-19 test

  • The president’s hospitalization has given fresh importance to Wednesday’s vice presidential face-off

Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris spent part of the weekend preparing for a debate that has taken on new importance after the hospitalization of President Trump elevated the vice president’s role and caused both sides to re-evaluate their strategy in the final stretch of the campaign.

Vice presidential debates typically have little impact on presidential races, but since the virus took Mr. Trump off the campaign trail, the face-off Wednesday at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City could garner more interest from voters.

“It will be an unprecedented debate in an unprecedented year," said Karen Finney, who served as a senior adviser to Democrat Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. She said the debate was historic because Ms. Harris is the first Black woman and person of Indian descent nominated for vice president by a major party and because of the circumstances facing the country.

The vice presidential debate follows a chaotic first meeting between Mr. Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, when both men traded insults and Mr. Trump repeatedly interrupted his challenger. Some allies of the president have said privately that he was too aggressive and worried that his performance might have turned off some voters. The two are scheduled to face each other in two more debates this month, though it is not clear how Mr. Trump’s illness will affect those plans.

This week’s debate is also a political test for Mr. Pence and Ms. Harris. The vice president weighed a presidential bid in 2016, while the California senator dropped out of the Democratic primaries in December. Both could seek the White House in the future. Ms. Harris, in particular, is viewed as a potential leader for the younger generation of the Democratic Party. Mr. Biden, who is 77, has said he would see his administration as a bridge to the next generation of leaders in the party.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Sunday found that Mr. Biden leads the president, 53% to 39%, among registered voters.The poll was conducted in the two days following the presidential debate but before Mr. Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis.

After a request from Mr. Biden’s campaign, the debate commission agreed late last week to seat Mr. Pence and Ms. Harris 12 feet apart—instead of 7 feet—on stage.

On Monday, Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., chairman of the debate commission, said it had also agreed to another change: The candidates will have plexiglass dividers between them and the moderator. Officials are still working on how high and thick the plexiglass would be.

The vice president tested negative for coronavirus this week, following Mr. Trump’s diagnosis. His aides have said he isn’t planning to quarantine, even though he came into contact with the president last week. Mr. Pence’s doctor said his interactions with Mr. Trump don’t count as close contact.

People familiar with the matter said Mr. Pence has been preparing for the debate for weeks while navigating his official duties and a travel schedule that had him on the road several days a week. Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who helped Mr. Pence prepare for his 2016 vice presidential debate, has also advised him this time, the people said. Former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has also helped him prepare, the people said.

At campaign events, Mr. Pence has called Ms. Harris a “radical leftist" and described Mr. Biden as a “Trojan horse for the radical left." He is expected to continue making that argument on the debate stage.

The Democratic Party’s internal battle over how far left to move has quieted in recent months but is likely to flare up again if Mr. Biden wins the presidency. Ms. Harris struggled at times to bridge that divide during her presidential run, such as when she crafted a plan to expand Medicare that didn’t go as far as progressives wanted.

Mr. Pence spent the weekend at the U.S. Naval Observatory, his northwest Washington, D.C., residence, discussing debate strategy with advisers, people familiar with the discussions said. The people added that aides spent less time on the matter than they planned because of the president’s health crisis. Mr. Pence planned to head to Utah on Monday for additional debate preparations.

Ms. Harris, meanwhile, traveled to Salt Lake City after campaigning in Nevada on Friday and was largely focused on the debate over the weekend.

Ms. Harris has been familiarizing herself more with Mr. Biden’s policy positions and record. She did much of her preparations in Washington, D.C., at her alma mater, Howard University, where the campaign has been using a studio for TV interviews and virtual events.

She intends to focus on the pandemic and access to health care, as she has done in events and interviews, contrasting the administration’s handling of the coronavirus—and Mr. Pence’s leadership of the coronavirus task force—with Mr. Biden’s plans, according to people familiar with her preparations.

Mr. Trump’s hospitalization has made her messaging trickier, and she has been working on shifting her tone, an aide said. Some of Mr. Trump’s advisers accused Mr. Biden of inappropriately criticizing the president while he is being treated for Covid-19 after the former vice president made policy-related critiques in a speech in Michigan.

“Of course it would be appropriate for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to have some respect for the fact that the president is battling Covid," said Matt Schlapp, an Trump administration ally and chairman of the American Conservative Union.

Robert Barnett, a partner at Williams & Connolly who has prepared many Democratic presidential and vice presidential candidates for debates, said Ms. Harris can provide a contrast on the handling of the pandemic by staying focused on the substance.

“The debate presents an opportunity to explain to the American people exactly what the Biden-Harris plans are," he said. “My advice is to take every opportunity to talk to the camera, address the voters and tell them exactly what you want to do."

Mr. Barnett played Mr. Pence during Sen. Tim Kaine’s preparations for the 2016 vice presidential debate.

Democrats said Mr. Pence would have to be careful in how he portrays Ms. Harris, as Mr. Trump loses support among women. The president has previously described her as “nasty," “mad" and “angry."

Ms. Harris’s debate team is being run by Karen Dunn, a lawyer at Paul, Weiss who previously helped prepare former President Obama and Mrs. Clinton for debates, according to a person familiar with the preparations. Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg—a former Democratic primary rival to Ms. Harris, has played Mr. Pence, Bloomberg has reported. In an interview with Fox News last week, Mr. Buttigieg declined to confirm that role.

Ms. Harris’s allies said the California senator will try to show voters that despite the difference in style and demeanor between Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence, there is no daylight between the two in policy and decision-making.

Ms. Harris has a reputation as a tough questioner in Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, but she and her team have been lowering expectations, describing Mr. Pence as a skilled debater. In a recent podcast interview with Mrs. Clinton, Ms. Harris stressed that the Democratic presidential primary debates she participated in were very different from the coming one with Mr. Pence.

“Then, it was mostly about speaking up about my position on various issues as compared to my colleagues on the stage," Ms. Harris said. “This time it will be about, you know, requiring some level of knowledge, if not mastery, of Joe’s record, the vice president, Mike Pence’s record, Trump’s record and then, of course, defending my own record."

Corrections & Amplifications

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is 77. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that he is 76. (Corrected on Oct. 5, 2020)

Write to Tarini Parti at Tarini.Parti@wsj.com and Andrew Restuccia at Andrew.Restuccia@wsj.com

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