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Pence and Harris prepare for a debate clash on coronavirus

Four years ago, then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence let out an exasperated "there you go again" on the debate stage after his opponent, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, said "America, you need a 'You're hired' president, not a 'You're fired' president."

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Dana Bash
Bridget Nolan, CNN
CNN — Four years ago, then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence let out an exasperated "there you go again" on the debate stage after his opponent, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, said "America, you need a 'You're hired' president, not a 'You're fired' president."

It was actually the first time Kaine, then the Democratic vice presidential nominee, uttered the phrase during the debate, but Pence didn't realize that. He had repeatedly heard the line ahead of time from the man playing the role of Kaine in his debate prep, former GOP Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

"That night, I laughed watching him," Walker recalled in an interview.

"He hadn't said it at that debate, but I said those exact phrases so many times, Mike Pence knew exactly what was going to come out of his mouth," added Walker, still laughing about it.

It's that kind of preparation that helped him deliver a strong debate performance in 2016, and a source familiar with Pence's debate prep this time around says he is approaching it the same way -- with traditional, tried and true methods like mock debates that last 90 minutes without a break, just like the real thing. Only a small group of advisers are in the room helping him, including former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who has played the role of Kamala Harris, along with others.

Walker predicts that Harris will be a tougher opponent than Kaine was four years ago.

"For two reasons. One, because of her background as a prosecutor. I think that will be perfected. And two, I think the stakes are higher," Walker said.

With President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump, and more than a dozen White House staffers now sick with Covid-19, Pence aides are bracing for Harris to turn the conversation to the pandemic as much as possible. And, of course, the vice president is the head of the White House coronavirus task force.

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"It's in his title, and I think with big responsibility comes accountability," said Lily Adams, Harris' former communications director both in the Senate and during her presidential campaign.

Harris sources say don't expect her to pull her punches just because the President contracted coronavirus, especially since he is no longer in the hospital.

"I think that she'll talk to the American people about all the worries that they've faced," Adams said.

"One of the things she does so well is really takes policies and abstract jargon, and really personalizes it to how people live their everyday, three-dimensional lives. That's what she is most effective at," she added.

Harris, like Pence, is preparing in a conventional way. Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Pence's fellow Hosier, plays the role of the vice president in her mock debates, according a source familiar with her prep. She is a studier, Adams said, a voracious reader of briefing books, and taking in the advice of her staff.

In her prep, Adams says Harris is very focused on finding ways to make her positions relatable.

"Let's really dig deep on how does that impact an actual person's life? Let me explain the problem that way, as opposed to using some sort of set term or a term that only makes sense in Washington, DC," Adams recalls Harris asking in prep in the past with staff.

Walker says Pence should lean into the administration's work on coronavirus.

"If I was the vice president, I wouldn't be on my heels. I'd be aggressive on this. I think the tendency, conventional wisdom is it's this tremendous liability, and obviously it'd be great if you didn't have a global pandemic," Walker said.

"Even if the President hadn't gotten coronavirus, even if the first lady and others hadn't, it's still the elephant in the room. American people are thinking about that. I just think the more he leans it and says, 'Here's what we've done. Here's what we're doing. By the way, almost everything Joe Biden's talking about doing, is stuff we've already been doing,'" he added.

Whether or not Pence's push back on coronavirus or other issues have factual errors is something Harris aides say she should be judicious about pointing out. Harris told 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in a podcast recently that she does not "want to be the fact checker," but that she is going to "be prepared for what is, I think, very likely to be a series of untruths."

History made at debate

Harris will only be the fourth woman to participate in a general election debate at the presidential or vice presidential level, and she is the first woman of color to do so. Harris advisers say they are well aware of the reality that comes with it -- that she will be perceived on stage by many through the prism of her gender and her race, even subconsciously.

She recently got advice from Clinton, the only woman in history at the top of the ticket, who warned her to be ready for efforts to diminish her because of her gender.

"I do think that there will be a lot of maneuvering on the other side to try to put you in a box," Clinton told Harris during her new podcast,

The first female running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, tried to turn any gender bias on its head during her 1984 debate against George H. W. Bush by calling it out.

"I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy," said Ferraro.

Pence advisers insist he will try to avoid any gender-related missteps in debating Harris.

"I think he's going to be respectful of the fact that she's historic on the ticket, and that's a big thing for America, even if they have different political views," Walker said.

Sources on both sides note that the stakes are high for each candidate not just for what their performance means for the men at the top of their tickets, but also for their own viability in the future.

Pence sources privately admit that, win or lose now, he is almost surely going to eye a run for the GOP nomination in 2024. And if Biden wins, there is talk in Democratic circles that because of his age, he will only serve one term, though Biden has never said so publicly.

Harris the prosecutor, Pence the smooth talker

Before debates, each side sets expectations for the other candidate, and Pence advisers and allies have been playing up the fact that Harris, a longtime courtroom prosecutor, is a skilled debater.

Walker even says he's been studying her style and body language, saying that when most politicians prepare for an attack line by speeding up and getting more aggressive, Harris does the opposite. That was on display when she delivered her famous line in the first presidential primary debate when she attacked Biden on the issue of busing, saying "that little girl was me."

"Most people speed up. They get a move in, they get aggressive, the adrenaline pumps up. If you go back and look at that again, the interesting part of that debate is, and I think indicative of a good prosecutor, she slowed down. She slowed down as if she was talking to the jury, drawing them in, telling that story," Walker said.

"Boy, that was unbelievably effective. That was one of those where the whole world stopped for her," he added.

As for Pence, team Harris is also spending time reminding people that he is not only an experienced political debater -- from his congressional races, to his governor's race, to the 2016 vice presidential race -- he was also once a radio host and a smooth talker.

"Mike Pence is a very good debater and we have to be mindful of that," Harris' chief of staff Karine Jean-Pierre told former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe in his podcast.

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