VP debate draws attention to the prospect of Pence or Harris succeeding the next US president

Now the emperor has returned to his palace, the political focus in the US has switched to the Wednesday night debate [US time] between Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris.

Donald Trump returned to the White house on Monday night, mounted the balcony of the White House, then stripped off his mask to defy the coronavirus that had sent him to Walter Reed military hospital. 

The floodlit scene resembled a Wagnerian opera minus the music – or  perhaps a performance by one of the more odious dictators from the 1930s.  Here was machismo, a president telling voters not to fear the virus, how he was feeling better than at any time in 20 years after emerging from the best medical care in the US despite his doctor saying – essentially – that he still wasn’t out of the woods and was on specialist medication.

So the debate between Harris and Pence becomes more significant because it is entirely possible that either could become president – Pence if Trump expires, Harris if Joe Biden holds the job for one term and then retires or something worse. 

Trump is 74, Biden 77.  Pence is 61 and Harris 55.

The experts reckon this vice-presidential debate is the most significant since they began in 1976, when Republican Bob Dole squared off against Democrat Walter Mondale.

The VP debate is traditionally a sideshow. The office of vice-president is largely ornamental apart from the duty of chairing the Senate. 

Only twice in nearly 50 years has a VP taken office: L B Johnson after the assignation of John F Kennedy and Gerald Ford after Richard Nixon resigned after the Watergate scandal.

One of the oddest characteristics of this presidential election campaign is how two septuagenarians captured the nomination of both political parties.  Voters will closely monitor how both perform after the blood and fury of last week’s initial presidential debate where, after 90 minutes of Trump’s verbal assaults, Biden was showing signs of fatigue and a certain loss of focus.

Senator Kamala Harris is a proven robust performer in the Senate. The former prosecutor crucified Biden in the opening rounds of nominee selection for the Democrats. By contrast, Pence is mild-mannered and polite. He has become a sort of sane and cautious voice in the White House. Republicans value him for his moderating presence alongside the bombast of Trump.

He’s described as calm and measured with a moderate demeanour that has stood him well in debate during his senate days.  He amazed many in the 2016 debates by effortlessly withstanding the verbal assaults of Hillary Clinton’s number two, Senator Tim Kaine, carefully deflating him in his mellow drawl.

He became famous around Washington DC for standing impassively as Trump raged against the light on anything from the Coronavirus to white supremacy.  He is also the link between the evangelicals and Trump.  The former tolerate Trump, rarely seen inside a church, because he vigorously supports the right-to-life movement.

Trump says he will participate in next week’s second presidential debate with Biden. Care is being taken to produce a more mannered event. It might be a last gasp for Trump, because the polls show Biden opening a 14% lead. The president has yet to receive a poll bounce from his Covid-19 infection, which – to repeat his doctor – is far from over.

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