The incumbent, Mike Pence, and the California senator Kamala Harris are set to take part in a vice-presidential debate in Salt Lake City, Utah, today with both under pressure to show their readiness to step up to the top job.
The debate will be, given the age of the presidential candidates and the hospitaliasation of US President Trump, the most important of its kind since VP debates began 40 years ago, experts have said.
The presidential race has been upended again, this time by 74-year-old Trump's infection with the coronavirus, focusing minds on the potential for Pence to take over even before election day on 3 November. The Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, is even older at 77, raising the prospect that if elected, he might not serve two terms but rather pass the torch to Harris in 2024.
Pence has been rehearsing for the debate with Pam Bondi, the former attorney general of Florida, playing the role of Harris, the Axios website reported. Harris has been practicing with Pete Buttigieg, a fellow Democratic primary candidate, standing in for Pence – both men are from Indiana.
The pair will debate with a plexiglass shield between them, according to the news agencies, a precaution requested by the Biden-Harris campaign. And whereas Biden and Trump were separated by 7ft, Pence and Harris will be seated 12ft apart as an extra precaution.
Pence is a socially conservative Christian evangelical man from the midwest, Harris a progressive mixed race woman from California. Her past career as a criminal prosecutor, and a tormentor of Trump allies in congressional hearings, mean she is widely seen as a formidable debater.
Vice presidential debates tend to be boring events focused on how best a candidate would help the president if elected and what types of policies an administration would pursue. In the background of these debates is always the recognition that either individual must be ready to become president, if their ticket succeeds.
Whether Trump is reelected or Biden wins next month, they will be sworn in during a deadly pandemic that has proved to be particularly dangerous to older men. And Americans will be watching the VP debate with renewed awareness that one of those two individuals could easily become president—not because they ran for the office but because they succeeded to the office.