No matter how hard, in his quiet and earnest way, that Vice President Pence tried to turn Wednesday’s vice-presidential debate into an assault on Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala D. Harris and reality itself forced the discussion back again and again to the failures of the Trump administration.

If Pence’s goal was to disrupt the trajectory of an election that has been moving the Democrats’ way, he plainly failed. And Harris succeeded by declining to make herself a center of attention. She acted instead as advocate for Biden and a sharp, detailed but tonally restrained critic of the current occupant of the White House.

From the very first question, Harris was on the attack, calling the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country.”

“They still don’t have a plan,” she said. “Joe Biden does.”

Pence hit back by claiming that Biden’s plan for the virus was similar to Trump’s and accused the vice president of “plagiarism.” He thus snuck into the debate — jarringly — an issue that plagued the Democratic nominee in his first quest for the presidency more than three decades ago.

But Pence’s defensiveness only underscored how the damage inflicted on the country by covid-19 has allowed Biden to build his large lead in the polls. And Harris, calmly and forcefully, came back to the pandemic and health care whenever she could.

“There is a weird obsession President Trump has had with getting rid of any accomplishments achieved by President Obama and Vice President Biden,” she said, referring to Trump’s dismantling of parts of Barack Obama’s efforts to protect against pandemics. “We are now looking at 210,000 Americans who have lost their lives.”

It was hardly a major achievement that the vice-presidential debate delivered more tranquility and civility than last week’s encounter between Trump and Biden. But the candidates did underscore how wild and chaotic Trump’s performance had been. Paradoxically, Pence’s reserved demeanor may have done more to harm than help the candidate whose cause he was promoting, by reminding viewers of Trump’s extreme lack of discipline.

Pence’s interruptions of Harris suggested he forgot that Trump had made disruption a mortal sin. Harris called him on it repeatedly. She made “I will not be lectured” one of her refrains. It no doubt resonated with many women watching.

Pence likewise talked over moderator Susan Page, who nonetheless succeeded in imposing a certain order on the evening.

Vice-presidential debates are rarely consequential, but Wednesday’s was at least as important as the 2008 encounter in which doubts about then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s capacity to be president made her confrontation with Biden especially important.

This time, the ages of the nominees — Trump is 74, and Biden will turn 78 on Nov. 20 — increase the actuarial possibility that Pence or Harris could succeed to the presidency, a consideration brought home especially in Pence’s case by Trump’s covid-19 infection.

Whatever else happened on Wednesday, both vice-presidential nominees reassured members of their own parties, and perhaps beyond, that they are fluent in policy and capable of holding their own in a test of wits.

But it was Harris, the less familiar figure to many voters, who made the most of the evening. She was skilled at using Pence’s attacks to provide listeners with new information helpful to her ticket.

Thus, when Pence accused Democrats of being anti-Christian for their handling of Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, Harris pointed out that both she and Biden were “people of faith.” She said that she was “insulted” by Pence’s attacks and noted that Biden would, in fact, be only the second Catholic president.

And when Pence attacked Biden’s economic plans, Harris used his criticisms to place herself and Biden in the great tradition of lunch-bucket Democrats — and managed to convey more detail about Biden’s plans than Biden himself had in his own debate. She spoke of how Biden would make it easier for young people to attend college, for all Americans to get health care — and stressed that Biden would not raise taxes on anyone earning less than $400,000 a year.

Although Pence presented himself as a traditional if somewhat syrupy Midwestern, conservative Republican, it was a sign of how the ideological pendulum is moving away from the right that he chose to play down conservative positions.

On climate change, for example, he said “we’ll follow the science,” an approach conservatives have rejected for years. He insisted that Republicans would protect the health insurance of those with preexisting conditions, the very protections he and Trump would scrap by repealing Obamacare.

For Harris, there was comfort in coming back again and again to hailing the man who put her on the ticket. “Joe Biden has a history of lifting people up,” she said at the close of the debate, “and fighting for their dignity.” She had a job to do. She did it.

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