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Harris' goal in vice presidential debate: Focus on Trump, not Pence

Posted October 6, 2020 1:35 p.m. EDT

— Kamala Harris and Mike Pence will be the two candidates on the debate stage in Utah on Wednesday night, but the California senator's goal is to make the contest all about the man who isn't there: President Donald Trump.

Harris, according to multiple Democrats familiar with her debate strategy, is preparing for the highest profile moment in her political career by studying both Trump and Pence's past positions, speaking with people who either know Pence well or have debated him in the past and preparing for a vice president who, unlike his boss, doesn't show much emotion on the debate stage.

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But the goal, the sources said, is to make the debate about more than Pence and focus the conversation on Trump's mishandling of the coronavirus, much like Biden tried to do a week earlier.

"Even though it is a vice presidential debate, the debate is about Donald Trump and Joe Biden," said a Biden campaign aide. "And it is all about making the case for why we need Joe Biden in this moment and why Donald Trump has failed."

Harris will make history as the first Black and South Asian woman to participate in a general election debate.

The debate comes just days after Trump left the a military hospital in suburban Washington after testing positive for the coronavirus and as multiple White House aides have tested positive for a virus that has become the central issue in the 2020 campaign.

The senator, according to the sources, is preparing for Pence to attack the California senator as a liberal and highlight the areas where she is further to the left than Biden. They are also preparing for the vice president to dig into the former California attorney general's criminal justice record, something Trump tried to do with Biden the week earlier and an issue that repeatedly came up during Harris' primary bid for the Democratic nomination.

Karen Dunn, a longtime Democratic operative who has focused on debates, is leading Harris' preparations, and is joined by longtime Harris aide Rohini Kosoglu, top Biden aide Anita Dunn, Harris spokeswoman Liz Allen and Biden aide Symone Sanders, said a source familiar with the preparations. Ron Klain, the Democratic operative who prepared Biden, is involved in the debate sessions but not in the room, the source added.

Harris' team sees Pence as a polar opposite debater to Trump, who showed his anger and frustration frequently on the debate stage with Biden in September. Pence, said the sources, is far "smoother" and more controlled than the President, rarely letting his emotion show or flashing any anger at a question or an attack.

Coronavirus looms

The threat of coronavirus will hang over the debate both rhetorically and physically. The Commission on Presidential Debates, after multiple confirmed positive cases in the Trump White House, including the President's own diagnosis, decided to separate Pence and Harris by almost 13 feet and put plexiglass barriers between the two candidates and the moderator.

Harris, much like she did before Democratic primary debates, traveled to Salt Lake City days early to begin preparing for her showdown. And in an attempt to understand Pence, Harris has reportedly called on former Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg, who is from Indiana and knows the former governor well, to play the vice president in debate prep.

Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten, were seen in Salt Lake City on Monday, but multiple aides declined to comment on whether he was playing Pence in prep.

Harris has also turned to the only other person to ever debate Pence on the national stage: Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, who, as Hillary Clinton's running mate, debated him in 2016. The two senators, according to a Kaine spokesperson, have talked about the details of debating Pence.

The biggest issue with debating Pence, said John Gregg, a Democrat who debated the former Indiana governor a handful of times during his 2012 campaign against the future vice president, is his ability to pivot from a question he doesn't want an answer and deliver a messages that he does.

"Mike is really, really focused. He is probably one of the most disciplined candidates I have ever met," Gregg said. "He will pivot better than any Big 10 basketball player off of a comment and back to a message."

Gregg added that the biggest mistake people make about Pence is underestimating him because he usually doesn't respond with an attack.

"He will take (a comment) and pivot to his talking point" and won't act like the President, Gregg said. "He will be very polite."

Harris has looked to squash any suggestion that she is taking Pence lightly, telling an audience at a fundraiser in September that the vice president is "a good debater."

"He's a very good debater. So, I definitely am going to prepare for this debate like I have for previous debates," Harris said. "But I take this debate very seriously. And I think we can expect he's going to be very good."

Avoid Pence, focus on Trump

Still, Harris hopes to avoid getting pulled into a sparring match with Pence on his own record, and instead focus on Trump.

One Biden aide, who declined to divulge details about Harris' debate preparations ahead of Wednesday night, said that the campaign sees the face-off in much the same way that they viewed the first presidential debate between Trump and Biden: An opportunity to make an affirmative case for why the Biden-Harris ticket would be better qualified to handle to the coronavirus pandemic.

Much like the Democratic nominee did repeatedly during last week's debate against Trump, Harris, the Biden aide said, is also expected to speak directly to American voters Wednesday night, though it is not clear whether that will manifest in the California senator speaking directly into the camera as Biden had.

Aides said they have seen how the Trump campaign has tried to cast her as "nasty" or "angry," attacks that fall into racial tropes, and expect that those will continue after Wednesday's debate.

Another Harris ally familiar with the way she prepared for past debates said the senator was an "in-person learner," someone who liked to be briefed and questioned on potential debate questions and scenarios in-person by aides.

Harris has, however, made some notable changes from her primary debate performances.

The California senator plans to avoid relying on prepared zingers to create moments with other candidates, something that was roundly mocked during the Democratic primary, said one source.

And unlike the primary debates, the differences between Pence and Harris will be starker. Where the Democratic primary debates were often based on nuanced policy disagreements between the candidates, the Harris ally said the stark contrast between the Republican and Democratic tickets heading into the general election will hopefully mean less risk of policy-related stumbles for Harris on the debate stage.

"In order to differentiate herself, you have to really split hairs and that didn't make for the best debate performance," said the ally. "Now, the difference between the Trump-Pence agenda and the Biden-Harris agenda are incredibly clear, and that works to her advantage."

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