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Pence vs. Harris: Four takeaways from the only VP debate

The low-key running mate debate could not have been more different from last week's grudge match between their bosses.
Image: Vice President Mike Pence and Kamala Harris applaud at the end of a debate in Salt Lake City on Oct. 7, 2020.
The vice presidential debate will probably be remembered for what it was not: It was not the mess of the first presidential debate, and it was not likely to be an inflection point in the campaign.Justin Sullivan / Pool via AP

WASHINGTON — The gloves stayed on. The train never left the rails. The sparks never flew. And a fly that briefly landed on Mike Pence's head may have been the most memorable moment of the only 2020 vice presidential debate.

The debate between the vice president and his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, was a return to a more normal style of politics and a glimpse at what the election might look like without the singular personality of Donald Trump — or perhaps a preview of a future election between these two candidates.

Harris and Pence proved to be polished and prepared debaters who stuck to talking their points, mostly respected the moderator and delivered more substance. And instead of the blatant insults and outright deceptions of last week's debates, they deployed the more typical tricks of slick politicians: dodging, obfuscation and exaggeration.

Here are four takeaways:

1. A very different debate

If last week's debate between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden was a screaming match between members of a reality TV show family, this was a disagreement between members of the most passive-aggressive family on the block, with more heavy sighs, dour looks and exasperated head shakes than shouts.

Pence made it clear early and often that he is not Donald Trump. He kept his voice at the cucumber-cool tone of a public radio host introducing a Mozart concerto. He paused throughout to offer sympathy and compassion for Americans who have experienced tragedy. And he congratulated Harris "on the historic nature of your nomination" in a way that would be impossible to imagine Trump doing.

"Senator Harris, it is a privilege to be on the stage with you," Pence said.

The words "thank you" were uttered 80 times, according to a rush transcript, compared to just six times in last week's debate — although at least some pleasantries were sarcastic.

Moderator Susan Page of USA Today had to interject several times to keep the candidates moving but never lost control, with a "thank you, vice president," generally doing the trick the first (or third) time.

The most viral moment did not come from anyone's pithy one-liner — or anyone who spoke at all. Instead, an insect that camped silently for a full two minutes on Pence stole the show.

Recognizing the potential in the moment, the Biden campaign quickly purchased the URL and made it redirect to a Democratic National Committee website of a similar name — — which provides information about how to vote.

2. The question of succession, unanswered

Both candidates dodged what is arguably the most important possible question in a vice presidential debate: What would they do if the president becomes incapacitated?

The vice president is chiefly an understudy, and vice presidential debates are mainly proxy fights for the nominees, because history has shown voters do not pay much attention to running mates when they consider their votes.

Page asked both candidates whether they had had conversations with their bosses "about safeguards or procedures when it comes to the issue of presidential disability."

Neither answered the question.

Pence used his allotted time to attack the Obama-Biden administration's handling of the H1N1 swine flu outbreak in 2009.

Harris likewise dodged, using her time to talk about her biography and qualifications. The subtext was that she was ready to step in if needed, but she never made that case explicit, nor did she address Page's question directly.

The question of succession is especially relevant this year, with one candidate, Trump, having recently been hospitalized and the other, Biden, looking to break Trump's record as the oldest president in history.

3. Pence on defense on Covid-19

The first words out of Harris' mouth summed up Biden's central case: "The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country," she said of the administration's response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Pence, who is chairman of the White House's coronavirus task force, took a different rhetorical tack from Trump.

Instead of minimizing the impact of the virus, Pence said Harris' criticism of the country's record fighting it was "a great disservice to the sacrifices the American people have made."

"I think the American people know that this is a president who has put the health of America first, and the American people, I believe with my heart, can be proud of the sacrifices they have made," he said.

Pence has been more willing to heed expert advice than the president and eager to project that fact, but he must still answer to a boss who ripped off his mask as soon as he arrived at the White House after returning from his hospitalization for the disease Monday.

For instance, while Trump's own health officials say masks are the most powerful tool in fighting the virus, Pence said Wednesday that they are a "choice" that he trusted Americans to make "in the best interests of their health."

It was similar to the have-it-both-ways approach he took on climate change. "President Trump has made it clear that we are going to continue to listen to the science," Pence said, while expressing doubt about the scientific consensus that humans are causing climate change and that it is an existential threat to human civilization.

"The climate is changing, but the issue is: What's the cause and what do we do about it?" he said.

4. Another day closer to the election — and that's good for Biden

The debate will probably be remembered for what it was not: It was not the mess of the first presidential debate, and it was not likely to be an inflection point in the campaign.

While both candidates ably delivered talking points and attack lines that their campaigns will clip and promote on social media to energize supporters and raise money, it may be quickly drowned in the torrent of other news.

Biden and Harris have enjoyed a steady lead, and Trump and Pence are quickly running out of time to change that.