Given the age of the two White House contenders, and President Donald Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis, Wednesday’s debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic challenger Kamala Harris is being billed as a critical test in an increasingly acrimonious election campaign.
The televised clash in Salt Lake City, Utah, comes at a precarious moment for the incumbents, less than a week after the president announced he had contracted Covid-19 amid a White House outbreak that has infected numerous high-profile Republicans.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, is ahead of Trump in national polls, enjoying a lead of 12 percentage points in the latest Reuters/Ipsos survey of likely voters, with less than four weeks until the November 3 election.
The traditional view among analysts is that presidential debates are unlikely to dramatically alter the dynamics of a presidential contest – and vice-presidential debates even less so.
Four years ago, only 37 million people tuned in for the debate between Pence and Hillary Clinton’s running mate Tim Kaine, less than half the number of viewers recorded for the first Trump-Clinton face-off.
This year, however, the battle of the veeps has garnered unprecedented attention, with John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, calling the Utah face-off "the most important vice-presidential debate in American history".
With two septuagenarians at the top of the ballot, one of them diagnosed with a virus that has killed more than 200,000 Americans, the idea that the next VP might have to step into the Oval Office at a moment’s notice is hardly a theoretical question.
Both Pence and Harris will be keen to demonstrate that they can take over as commander-in-chief if necessary.
Late on Tuesday, the two sides were still bogged down in a somewhat unpresidential spat on the merits of having plexiglass barriers on stage during the debate.
Pence was with Trump and others last week who have since tested positive, and the vice president has faced questions about whether he should be at the debate at all.
Mirroring Trump’s taunts levelled at Biden for his habit of wearing a protective face mask, as advised by doctors, the Pence campaign had sought to ridicule a Democratic request for plexiglass barriers to lessen the risk of infection.
In a statement, Pence's spokeswoman, Katie Miller, said: "If Senator Harris wants to use a fortress around herself, have it."
In response, Sabrina Singh, a spokeswoman for Harris, wrote on Twitter: "Interesting that @VPComDir Katie Miller mocks our wanting a plexiglass barrier on the debate stage, when her own boss is supposedly in charge of the Covid-19 task force and should be advocating for this too."
Singh added: "If the Trump administration's war on masks has now become a war on safety shields, that tells you everything you need to know about why their Covid response is a failure."
Trump stalwart faces rising star
Pence, a 61-year-old evangelical Christian known for his unwavering loyalty to Trump, will be eager to seize on his opponent’s liberal policies and portray the Democratic ticket as beholden to the “radical left”.
But he may find it difficult to shift the conversation away from the Republican administration's chaotic handling of the pandemic.
The former Indiana governor serves as chair of the president's coronavirus task force, which has failed to implement a comprehensive national strategy even as the national death toll surges past 210,000.
His opponent, a 55-year-old California senator, is also a former prosecutor whose pointed questioning of Trump's appointees and court nominees and cool charm on the campaign trail made her a Democratic star.
For Harris, the first woman of colour on a vice-presidential ticket, the debate is her highest profile opportunity to say how Biden would stabilise the United States, especially when it comes to the pandemic and racial injustice.
Democrats hope the historic nature of her candidacy will help energise key groups of likely Democratic voters – African Americans and young people, in particular – who have shown less excitement for Biden.
It's unclear how aggressive the candidates will be with each other.
Both have adopted a cautious approach on the campaign trail, keeping in line with past running mates who, above all, are tasked with not hurting their party's ticket. However, some Harris allies have voiced concern that a conservative approach will prevent her from shining.
“Overly scripting Kamala Harris is tantamount to removing five bullets out of her gun before you walk into a gun fight,” Nathan Barankin, who served as Harris's chief of staff in the Senate, told AP.
Gender will likely play a role in the debate, Hillary Clinton, the first woman to lead a presidential ticket, said during a recent fundraiser.
She suggested Pence would try to paint Harris as “the inexperienced woman candidate". Harris will have to be mindful of the double standard for women in politics as she responds, Clinton said.
“She’s got to be firm and effective in rebutting any implication that comes from the other side, but to do it in a way that doesn’t, you know, scare or alienate voters,” Clinton said.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS)