SALT LAKE CITY — Wednesday night’s vice presidential debate at the University of Utah between Republican Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris of California was scaled back and even in doubt due to the pandemic.
But now it is expected to have outsized influence.
Especially since it comes just days after President Donald Trump tested positive for COVID-19, and follows his and former Vice President Joe Biden’s chaotic first debate last week — events that threaten to upend the two remaining presidential debates prior to the November election.
There’s a strong belief — shared by the leaders of both the Republican and Democratic parties in Utah — that the vice presidential debate is now must-see TV for more people than ever, largely because of their frustration over the unprecedented incivility and lack of focus on what the next four years should look like for Americans in last week’s presidential debate.
“There will be a heightened interest based on what happened last week. I think this will paint a stark contrast,” Utah GOP Chairman Derek Brown said, predicting there will be “more reality and less rhetoric. And by reality, I mean actual policies.”
For Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant, “what last week’s fiasco did for the vice presidential debate is it increased interest substantially. I think that most Utahns and most Americans now view this vice presidential debate as the debate where a discussion of policy may actually happen.”
Adding to the importance of the vice presidential matchup in Salt Lake City is that Trump’s health concerns may mean his last two debates with Biden could be canceled. That may have been briefly considered for the vice presidential debate, but officials announced Friday it is going forward.
Trump’s confirmation of his diagnosis shortly after midnight Friday in Washington “tremendously increases the stakes of the debate which could be the last one of the cycle,” said presidential debate expert Aaron Kall, director of debate for the University of Michigan.
“Given that and increased interest about President’s Trump’s condition, audience viewership is likely to be higher than during a traditional vice presidential debate,” Kall said. “Pence and Harris must be able to reassure voters they would be able to step in at a moment’s notice,” because of the health and age of both presidential candidates.
The candidates should be on their best behavior on the debate stage, Kall said.
“I think both of them have an additional responsibility to be extra cautious and ensure the mistakes made during the presidential debate aren’t repeated,” he said. Trump’s failure to rattle Biden, Kall said, “put a tremendous amount of pressure on Mike Pence to deliver in the vice presidential debate.”
Harris is seen as having the advantage because of her experience as a prosecutor, Kall said. But while Pence may not “dazzle” as a debater, his methodical style helped him surprise many with his performance against the 2016 Democratic nominee for vice president, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine.
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, also said Pence will be in the spotlight because Trump’s debate performance “didn’t do anything to further the president’s cause” to appeal to conservatives in Utah and the rest of the country.
Karpowitz said voters will be looking for a change in tone, in what will be both the “biggest campaign event” since the president tested positive and later, was hospitalized, for COVID-19 and possibly the final debate before the November election.
“The example on Tuesday did not reflect well on our nation,” the political science professor said. “I think many Americans, regardless of which side they are on, are hoping there can be a debate that reflects the better angels of our nature a little more.”
The debate will be moderated by USA Today Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page, who said she is “totally focused” on her role and won’t do any interviews until after it is over. The debate will be divided into nine segments and each candidate will have two minutes to respond to the opening questions in each segment.
Other details of the debate were still being worked out between the campaigns and the Commission on Presidential Debates. Politico reported Saturday the commission agreed to space Pence and Harris 12 feet apart onstage, rather than 7 feet, as requested by the Biden campaign because of concerns about coronavirus.
However, as of Friday the commission would not go along with another request from the Democratic campaign for the candidates to stand rather than be seated during the debate, according to Politico, which said the Trump campaign had sought both the 7-foot distancing and seats.
Harris arrives early
The vice president is expected to be in Utah sometime Monday. Before the president tested positive for COVID-19, Pence had been considering spending more time in the state to hold campaign events and meet with Utah leaders, but now it’s not clear he will.
Harris arrived in Utah Friday night after a stop in Las Vegas and toured This Is the Place Heritage Park Saturday.
“Wow,” Harris said as she looked at the stone obelisk featuring a statue of Brigham Young, who led the pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. “So this is the place? Isn’t that something,” she said after reading the monument plaques.
“Look at that. When you think about the spirit of America, including the pioneers here, that is so much of the fabric of this nation. They were essentially immigrants. They were fleeing persecution. They were fighting for religious freedom,” the senator said at the park honoring Mormon pioneers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The senator called on Americans to follow the pioneer spirit. “Let’s put our shoulders to the wheel. Let’s do the work that is necessary and continue to fight for our ideals and our values and in this case what they fought for so many years ago, which was for freedom and to hold our country accountable for the values we say we hold dear.”
Scott Howell, a former Democratic state Senate leader and a Biden surrogate accompanied Harris on the tour. He said she is expected to spend her time in Utah getting ready for the debate.
Howell said plans for Salt Lake Democratic officials to greet Harris at the airport were scrapped because of coronavirus concerns.
“She is just focused on the debate,” Howell said. “This is big stakes at hand. This might be the last debate.”
When Utah bid in March 2019 to host a presidential debate, the plan was to hold the event at the University of Utah’s 15,000-seat Jon M. Huntsman Center and more than earn back the multimillion-dollar price tag from the huge number of visitors it would bring to the state.
The effort by the Utah Debate Commission and the U. landed the sole vice presidential debate of the 2020 election in a decision announced a year ago by the nonpartisan and nonprofit Commission on Presidential Debates.
The three presidential debates went to the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, the University of Michigan and Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. Both Notre Dame and the University of Michigan backed out over the summer, citing concerns about COVID-19.
Case Western Reserve University in Ohio held last Tuesday’s debate instead of Notre Dame, and the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami offered to step in for Michigan on Oct. 15. Belmont University is still scheduled to host the final presidential debate on Oct. 22.
Utah officials say giving up the vice presidential debate was never considered, even as the state continues to report record numbers of coronavirus cases.
However, because of the health precautions being taken as a result of the deadly virus, including mask and social distancing requirements, there won’t be throngs of journalists, campaign operatives and political insiders filling hotel rooms, jamming restaurants and crowding the university campus.
The debate will be in Kingsbury Hall. The hall has nearly 2,000 seats but fewer than 200 people are likely to be allowed inside to see the vice presidential candidates spar in person for 90 minutes, starting at 7 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time.
Just 200 journalists have been credentialed to cover the event from a tent set up in Presidents Circle, not the up to 5,000 originally anticipated. While it’s typical that the media isn’t in the debate hall itself, the traditional spin alley where surrogates jostle to talk up candidate performances is being replaced by one-on-one interviews.
$5 million ‘worth it’
The price tag is still more than $5 million, with a total of $3.5 million coming from taxpayers. The rest has been raised privately, much of it coming from Kem and Carolyn Gardner and the debate’s corporate sponsor, Zions Bank. Kem Gardner and Zions Bank President and CEO Scott Anderson are community co-chairmen for the debate.
No matter what changes have had to be made because of coronavirus, state Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said there’s no question that’s still money well-spent.
“There’s an economic value and then there’s the social value, the value to the country and the value to people to get information to be able to compare the two candidates,” Adams said, something that Utah will showcase as host of the debate.
“Absolutely, it’s worth it.”
The state Senate president, who is a co-chairman of Trump’s reelection campaign in Utah, said the state has an obligation to fulfill.
“When you make the commitment, you follow through on the commitment. I think it’s something Utah does. We made the commitment to host the debate. No one predicted what would happen with COVID. We’re in it, and we’re going to see it through,” he said.
Kall, who was in Cleveland for the first presidential debate and is traveling to Salt Lake City for Wednesday’s matchup between Pence and Harris, said it wasn’t easy to see the University of Michigan give up its presidential debate earlier this year.
“It’s certainly tough. But in the grand scheme of things you kind of have to take the long view. We’ve lost so much with coronavirus, the death toll, the economy,” he said. “You have to put it into a little bit of perspective. Obviously, all the original hosts would have loved to still have participated and do it if they could.”
Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, debated then-President Barack Obama three times. Romney, who called last week’s debate between Trump and Biden an “embarrassment,” told the Deseret News he expects better from the vice presidential candidates.
“Debates are an important part of the presidential election process,” he said. “We Utahns place great value on the reverence for freedom, respect for others, and the importance of service and civility. It is my hope that this debate will be a platform where those values are exhibited and that they set an example for the rest of the country.”