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Flashback: Pence Won the 2016 Vice Presidential Debate

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Posted: Oct 07, 2020 10:25 AM

As we await this evening's lone Vice Presidential debate of the cycle -- which will feature exceptional social distancing measures -- what might we expect?  First, it's a safe bet that in spite of the plexiglass and the backdrop of endlessly wild news cycles, tonight's proceedings will sound more 'normal' than what we witnessed last Tuesday.  That's a low bar to clear, of course.  Vice President Pence is far more of a traditional politician than his infamously unorthodox running mate, and Sen. Kamala Harris is less gaffe prone and meandering than the nominee at the top of her ticket.  Perhaps a somewhat dull dose of relative normalcy and coherence would be welcome at this point. 

Second, I'd expect that Harris has devoted a great deal of time to debate preparation, as quite a few voters will be evaluating her performance as someone who could plausibly, and not just hypothetically, become president sometime within the next four years -- or at least be a strong frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in 2024.  She's a seasoned prosecutor who's won two statewide races in California, and she certainly had her moments as a presidential candidate in 2019.  But there's a reason why she dropped out before any voting actually started; in short, she's an overrated politician.  Perhaps lots of debate cramming will help.  It's not like she's been out there campaigning terribly aggressively, and she certainly hasn't been subjecting herself to lots of tough questions -- or many questions at all, really.  We'll see if she can shake off any rust on that front.  She's also never had to really appeal to a mainstream electorate that's not remotely as blue as California's or the Democratic primary audience.  How will that go?

Third, don't underestimate Pence.  Somewhat lost in the crazy blur of the 2016 campaign was his rock solid debate showing against Hillary Clinton's running mate (Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, for those who may have already forgotten).  Kaine came into that battle as an experienced pol who'd won gubernatorial and Senate races in a purple state.  He wasn't a neophyte or a pushover.  But Pence, an adept operator in his own right, won.  Flash polling called him the victor, and analysts at outlets ranging from the Los Angeles Times to CBS News agreed.  If you scroll through and watch portions of the debate, you'll be reminded of why:

Pence was consistently steady, unflappable (or rarely-flapped, if that's a thing), and assiduously prepared.  If he brings the thoroughness and calmness that characterized his showings at Coronavirus task force press conferences -- that general topic could very well dominate tonight -- the Vice President will once again prove formidable.  The debate begins at 9pm ET and will be moderated by USA Today's Susan Page.