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Debates between the two American running mates, the nominee vice presidents, is normally a political afterthought. But that is also different in times of pandemic. Republican Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic Senator Kamala Harris know all eyes are on them.

Haggling over Plexiglass screens

Running mates are expected to defend their own lead candidate during the campaign and attack that of the opposing team. The vice-presidential debate is the main opportunity they have for this in terms of audience size.

Their own ambitions also count: (candidate) vice presidents often launch their own presidential campaign later on. The high ages of Donald Trump (74) and Joe Biden (77) make this all the more relevant for Pence (61) and Harris (55), both of whom are known to prey on the Oval Office.

It was still a bit tense whether the debate in Salt Lake City from Wednesday to Thursday would take place. The coronavirus is haunting the White House, and Vice President Pence has been in close contact with people who were later diagnosed with the virus in recent weeks. Pence has repeatedly been tested negative since it became known that Trump had fallen ill, but given the incubation period of the virus, that offers no guarantees.

Workers install plexiglass screens where the vice-presidential debate will take place. (Photo: ANP)

According to the vice president himself, extra precautions are unnecessary during the debate, because he would only have limited exposure to infected people and the two debaters will be almost 4 meters away from each other. The organizers decided at the insistence of Biden’s campaign team that there will also be screens made of plexiglass. Team Trump does not see the point of this and initially opposed it, but agreed on Tuesday.

The discussion about the screens is illustrative: the pandemic will probably be the talking point. The US President and his Vice President have been diligently trying to divert attention during the campaign. That strategy, which was already not very successful with the electorate, is outdated with Trump’s own contamination. As the proverbial babble goes: the corona virus is the big pink elephant that you cannot possibly ignore.

The vice president heads the US government’s ‘corona task force’. He will likely have to answer for the way the White House has handled the pandemic. It has now claimed more than 210,000 lives in the United States.

He may also receive questions about how Trump dealt with his own contamination. The president was already released from the hospital on Monday, to the surprise of many medical experts, and now presents himself as living proof that the coronavirus is not to be feared.

The vice president has been Trump’s shadow in almost every respect for the past four years. He will have to navigate between maintaining that loyalty and showing his own political face – within the Republican Party there are several hijackers on the coast as possible future ‘next generation’ Trump, such as Senator Tom Cotton from Arkansas and former UN. Ambassador Nikki Haley.

The Trump campaign states that Biden and Harris are puppets of the far left. The California senator, who is indeed significantly more left-wing than Biden, is portrayed as the real power behind the throne. Pence will undoubtedly try to convince floating voters of this next night.

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