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What Will The Pence-Harris Debate Mean To The Presidential Campaigns?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Separated by about a dozen feet and a couple of Plexiglas barriers, the candidates for vice president debated last evening. They did not often answer the questions asked by moderator Susan Page, but Mike Pence and Kamala Harris did offer contrasting views on a range of issues. And unlike with last week's presidential debate where the president constantly interrupted, you could actually make out what people were saying last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: The American economy, the American comeback is on the ballot.

KAMALA HARRIS: Whatever the vice president is claiming the administration has done, clearly it hasn't worked.

PENCE: The reality is that we will have a vaccine, we believe, before the end of this year.

HARRIS: If you have a preexisting condition - heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer - they're coming for you.

INSKEEP: NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro is here to discuss all that. Hey there, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: We just heard some clips from the debate, a lot of them focused on the pandemic. And we heard Harris say whatever the administration has done, it hasn't worked because the death toll is so high in the United States. How did the candidates handle that issue?

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, look. This was a far more normal, typical debate. And the coronavirus, like you said, did really dominate for the most part in the beginning of this. And Harris, who is a former prosecutor, really tried to deliver an indictment of Trump's handling of it. She had a lot of facts to tap into.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country. And here are the facts - 210,000 dead people in our country in just the last several months, over 7 million people who have contracted this disease.

MONTANARO: Oh, and Pence had his back up against the wall most of the early part of that debate. He's the chair of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and he came back at Harris by defending Trump's cheerleading on the pandemic and why essentially there hasn't been a top-down national plan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PENCE: President Trump, I will tell you, has boundless confidence in the American people, and he always spoke with confidence that we'd get through this together.

INSKEEP: So that's what Vice President Pence had to say, Domenico, but I want to ask about something he didn't say. He was directly asked by the moderator, one of many just unanswered questions last night, and it was a question of why. Why is it that the death toll per capita in the United States is so much higher than almost any other wealthy nation? Why? Did Vice President Pence answer that question?

MONTANARO: No, he really didn't get to that. In fact, he just came back to the fact that the administration had shut down travel from China and - which is a thing that they've come back to repeatedly. And we saw that a bunch of times during the debate where, you know, Pence had dodged some questions and moved on rather quickly to some other subject, you know, even at one point talking about climate change and pivoting to taxes, for example.

INSKEEP: Well, let's listen to a little bit of that. We have some tape here from Vice President Pence when asked if he agreed that climate change was an existential threat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PENCE: As I said, Susan, the climate is changing. We'll follow the science. But once again, Senator Harris is denying the fact that they're going to raise taxes on every American.

INSKEEP: Well, since we've changed the subject to taxes, let's stay there for a moment, Domenico Montanaro, because there was some disagreement between the candidates on what the Biden tax plan actually would be. What would it do?

MONTANARO: Well, the Biden tax plan would not raise taxes on anyone making less than $400,000 per year. But, of course, it was an area that Pence wanted to be able to come back to repeatedly. And look. The argument here is that the role of government is still the great dividing line - Republicans arguing for smaller government and arguing the Democrats want bigger government, and Democrats certainly argue that government should do more. But this is pretty traditional stuff, stuff that we've heard Democrats and Republicans debate and argue about since Reagan versus Carter.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about something else that came up because there's a lot of discussion of the Supreme Court. We are days away from confirmation hearings for President Trump's latest nominee to the Supreme Court. Republicans have been accused of violating norms and trying to jam up the court with conservative justices. But, of course, Democrats - some - have been talking about expanding the court if they get into power. What was notable about that?

MONTANARO: Yeah, Pence really tried to put Harris on the defense on whether Biden would, as president, try to expand the court. It's something a lot of progressives have been talking about since Trump won and President Obama's Supreme Court nominee was denied even a hearing in 2016. Trump and Pence think it's an issue that make Biden and Harris look out of step with the middle of the electorate. You know, Biden has declined to answer questions about it specifically, and Harris kind of sidestepped it as well last night. Instead, she talked about Trump's record nominating judges here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: Do you know that of the 50 people who President Trump appointed to the Court of Appeals for lifetime appointments, not one is Black? This is what they've been doing. You want to talk about packing a court, let's have that discussion.

MONTANARO: You know, and Pence was also asked a very straightforward question about health care. And he also dodged. Let's listen to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PENCE: Well, thank you, Susan. But let me just say, addressing your very first question, I couldn't be more proud to serve as vice president to a president who stands without apology for the sanctity of human life. I'm pro-life. I don't apologize for it.

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, Republicans have tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act dozens of times, still haven't come up with a replacement plan. Plus the administration is going to be at the Supreme Court next month arguing to try to nullify it. And overall, look, in terms of the campaign on style, this debate was probably a push. Biden was ahead going into the debate, likely going to be afterward because there wasn't much that probably changed that.

INSKEEP: Oh, your point being that neither one seems to have utterly changed the direction of this campaign, which has been surprisingly consistent given the unbelievable amount of news.

MONTANARO: It has.

INSKEEP: Domenico, thank you so much.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: And we have a bit of news about the second presidential debate, which is scheduled for Thursday, October 15. This is between President Trump and Democrat Joe Biden, of course. We're told now this will be a virtual debate, not face to face. The candidates will participate in a town hall-style event with both of them in separate locations. The Commission on Presidential Debates said that this morning, citing health and safety reasons. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.