In this edition: What past debates tell us about Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, the latest fighting over voter rights, and new polls that paint a dark picture for Republicans.

I don't know if the presidency is worth a daily covid brain-stab, and this is The Trailer.

Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris will face off in their first debate on Oct. 7. Here's what to expect. (The Washington Post)

SALT LAKE CITY — President Trump had lost the first presidential debate. Democrats wanted the final weeks of the campaign to focus on the Republican nominee’s weaknesses. Mike Pence’s task was defending Trump, making a Democratic victory sound like a nightmare and disputing the Democrats’ central premise: that a Trump presidency would weaken and divide the country.

“If Donald Trump had said all of the things that you’ve said he said in the way you said he said them, he still wouldn’t have a fraction of the insults that Hillary Clinton leveled when she said that half of our supporters were a basket of deplorables,” Pence told Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, Clinton's running mate. “She said they were irredeemable, they were not American.” That went further than Clinton — she had said racists were “thankfully” not representative of America. But Pence landed the blow, and Kaine didn't respond.

By acclamation, it was the best moment for Pence in a 2016 debate that he won decisively. His mission here Wednesday: Do it again, with a new opponent, under wildly different conditions. The president’s illness has supercharged the importance of what is typically the cycle’s least pivotal debate. Pence, who portrayed himself last time as a heartland outsider, is now the head of a Coronavirus Task Force for a White House that has dramatically struggled to contain the pandemic. And Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California, whom Republicans once talked up as a focus of their campaign, has yet to come under sustained attack.

That will change Wednesday, by necessity, because the Trump-Pence campaign is in more trouble than it was four years ago. Pence is in a solid position to change that, constantly underrated but effective in these settings. Harris may be under more scrutiny than any vice-presidential nominee in this century, with Trump allies sometimes blurting out the idea that Joe Biden could die in office, handing the presidency to his lesser-known and more liberal running mate.

The president's own sickness complicated that strategy, putting new attention on Pence as a president-in-waiting. Trump's departure from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center complicated it further, nixing a scenario that Harris had prepared for, in which attacks on a hospitalized president could have backfired. There's more public speculation than there was four years ago about the presidential nominees' health and age; consequently, there's going to be more attention on whether Harris and Pence look like plausible commanders in chief, once they figure out whether to be separated by a Plexiglass shield or not.

Unlike last week's debate in Cleveland, preceded by months of Trump campaign mockery of Biden's age and mental sharpness, this will unfold with no expectations-lowering for either candidate. Pence's last appearance in this venue was a success. Harris, whose last debate was 11 months ago against fellow Democratic presidential candidates, has a vocal cheering section, the #KHive, which has been fantasizing for weeks about how she could eviscerate Pence. Pence's image as a bland Trump defender doesn't match reality, and neither does Harris's online image as a knife-fighter. Here's what you learn if you pore over their past debates.

How Harris debates. For those who never saw her on the primary campaign trail, Harris's best and worst moments both came at debates; the fight she picked with Biden over desegregation and busing, and the fight she forfeited with Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard over her California record. (Harris declined to engage Gabbard, attacking her only when the debate was over.)

But one-on-one debates are not like those primary forums, and Harris has not been part of a debate like this since exactly four years ago. That was when she faced Rep. Loretta Sanchez for the first and only time, in a runoff between generally like-minded Democrats in California's “top-two” primary system. Harris hasn't debated a Republican at all since 2010, during her close race for attorney general against Steve Cooley, the Republican district attorney of Los Angeles.

The latter debate, with a less-charismatic Republican who portrayed Harris as too weak and liberal for the job, was more revealing. Cooley began it with a surprise, welcoming the family members of a murdered police officer to emphasize that Harris opposed the death penalty for the killer. “They're supporting me, along with 47 other law enforcement organizations,” Cooley said, exactly the sort attack Pence could try to land on Harris.

But Harris didn't blink. She pivoted to her strongest political arguments against Cooley: his support from the energy industry and her experience cracking down on recidivism in San Francisco, where she was district attorney. Much of the debate turned on contemporary California issues that don't echo in 2010, but on one that does — the first major lawsuit to invalidate the Affordable Care Act — Harris was crisp, asking how Cooley could use state resources to attack the law when they had “a state full of people who are uninsured.”

The 2016 debate with Sanchez went more smoothly and had lower stakes; it's remembered only for how it ended, with the 56-year-old Sanchez “dabbing” out of view of some TV cameras. Harris's job was to do no harm to her front-running campaign, and she didn't, hitting some of the themes that would reappear in her run for president, such as how the key issues were the ones that mattered “when the folks I meet across this state wake up at 3 o'clock in the morning.”

The 2019 primary debates were trickier, and Harris suffered from the potency of her first showdown with Biden: Her next five debates lacked such a moment, and as she declined in polls, the senator could get ignored on the sides of the stage. That was often due to a strategy not rewarded in a multicandidate debate: bringing the conversation back to the general election and how she'd “prosecute the case” against the president, as an ineffective plutocrat.

“For those working people who are working two and three jobs, if they don’t pay that credit card by the end of the month, they get a penalty,” Harris said in her final debate at-bat. “For the people who don’t pay their rent, they get evicted. For the people who shoplift, they go to jail. We need the same set of rules for everybody.”

Harris was far less effective talking through her campaign's policies, but two things have changed since then. One, the mazelike discussions of left-wing policies, such as Medicare-for-all, are over. Two, Harris no longer has to talk through her own campaign's policies. She has to defend and explain Biden's, without getting tangled in details, while bringing the focus back to the Trump record. Harris has done few policy-focused interviews since becoming Biden's vice-presidential nominee. Pence has far, far more experience selling his running mate.

“He’s a good debater,” Harris told donors last month. “So I’m so concerned, like I can only disappoint.”

How Pence debates. The vice president's 2016 debate put him a new position, one he excelled in: defending Donald Trump while introducing himself. He'd grappled with a Democrat more recently than Harris has with a Republican, facing down Democrat John Gregg, an avuncular state legislator, to win the Indiana governor's mansion in 2012.

It wasn't one-on-one — the Libertarian nominee shared the stage — but the skills Pence had honed as a radio commentator and five-term member of Congress were deployed effectively. The key was often turning to Gregg, and asking if he could really object to Pence's common-sense ideas. Really? Really?

“Giving children in underprivileged families more choices, John, is just the right thing to do,” Pence said at one point, discussing school choice.

The 2016 debate was trickier, but Kaine had a strategy that Pence could poke holes through. In a post-debate interview with the New Yorker's Evan Osnos, Kaine said he “needed to make sure that the day after … there were no new negative stories about Hillary.” But Pence had 30 years of anti-Clinton animus to draw on, and new stories (a la “deplorables”) to cite, and when Kaine attacked effectively, Pence dismissed him as over-prepped and evasive.

“Did you work on that one a long time?” Pence snarked after Kaine said Trump had a “personal Mount Rushmore” of foreign dictators. “Because that had a lot of really creative lines in it.”

Pence largely ignored Kaine and his record. Republicans have not wanted to take that approach with Harris. But after announcing that they would portray the Democrat as an ultraliberal, on track to replace Biden or rule him behind the scenes, Pence's party hasn't shown its cards. Attacks have aired for a day before being swept away in the news cycle: Harris as a phony, Harris endorsing Medicare-for-all and not ruling out the expansion of the Supreme Court, Harris's voting record (the most liberal in 2019, partly because of which votes she skipped).

There's more that the campaign has focused on with digital ads, such Harris's tweet raising money for the Minnesota Freedom Fund, a group flooded with cash after the George Floyd protests; some of the prisoners whose bail was paid by MFF had criminal records. That topic hasn't been fruitful for the GOP, with Biden and Harris perfectly ready to defend and spin their records on crime. But when debating Kaine, Pence was comfortable accusing Democrats of becoming anti-police, an argument the Trump campaign has put millions of dollars of ads behind this year.

“What we need to do is assert a stronger leadership at the national level to support law enforcement,” Pence said. “You just heard Senator Kaine reject stop-and-frisk. Well, I would suggest to you that the families that live in our inner cities, that are besieged by crime …” Pence was cut off, but he pulled Kaine into a discussion far from the Trump record Kaine had come to talk about.

This year's Democratic ticket deprives Pence of some of his most effective tactics from 2016. Biden simply doesn't have Hillary Clinton's low favorable ratings, and none of the scandals aired about him have had the sticking power of the investigation into Clinton's emails. Four years ago, Pence repeatedly cut through Kaine's criticisms by bringing the subject back to Clinton.

“Honestly, Senator, we would know a lot more about it if Hillary Clinton would just turn over the 33,000 emails that she refused to turn over in her private server,” Pence told Kaine after the Virginian tried to refute attacks on the Clinton family's charitable foundation.

That strategy would make no sense in 2020, where there is more attention being paid to the nominees' running mates. Unlike Trump, Pence does not get lost in the details of Democratic scandals that may not have broken through outside conservative media.

In campaign appearances, where he has only occasionally attacked Harris, Pence has tried to exploit perhaps the key rhetorical difference between the Democrats. Biden's instinct when asked about demands from the left, or from protesters, is to distance himself; Harris's instinct is to side with them. Pence has the chance to attack Harris over statements that were buried in the news cycle, such as her endorsement of police budget cuts in Los Angeles (“I applaud [Mayor] Eric Garcetti for doing what he's done,” Harris had said.) There's less to gain by forcing Harris to defend Biden — that's easy — than by elevating the idea that Biden picked a far more left-wing running mate and poke at their differences through Harris's own statements.

Pence, a dedicated social conservative, is also more comfortable than Trump in arguing for a conservative court. Last week, Trump appeared to surprise Biden by denying that Roe v. Wade was “on the ballot,” saying that it wasn't clear how Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett would rule on abortion cases. Pence has consistently argued what Republicans think and Democrats fear: that conservative judges can roll back abortion rights and that if Democrats are forced to defend the details of late-term abortions, they'll lose.

“A society can be judged by how it deals with its most vulnerable, the aged, the infirm, the disabled, and the unborn,” Pence said at the debate with Kaine. “I believe it with all my heart. And I couldn’t be more proud to be standing with a pro-life candidate in Donald Trump.”

As he did effectively all night, Pence portrayed Kaine as a dissembler, distracting from Clinton's problems and agenda. That won't be repeatable in a debate with Harris. But the rest of Pence's tactics have been effective, and Harris enters this debate less defined than Clinton ever was. Trump-Pence is in a weaker polling position than any incumbent presidential campaign since 1992, and Wednesday's debate represents one of its last chances for a surprise, or a conversation-changer — one that wouldn't be wiped out by the president himself in a few hours or days.

Reading list

What a race for San Francisco DA taught the Democratic VP nominee.

The rise of Lauren Witzke.

The internal tensions behind a crisis that froze the campaign.

One reason this is playing out so differently from 2016.

Lots of money for Democrats, and lots of surprising places to spend it.

Preparing for the worst.

Is a “don't panic” attitude costing the president's party some votes?

Ad watch

David Zukerman, “Big Differences.” Vermont's lieutenant governor is a heavy underdog in his race against moderate Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who has won praise for his handling of the coronavirus and said he isn't voting for President Trump. Zuckerman's play is to convert more Biden voters into down-ticket Democratic voters, and this soft-focused spot mentions Scott only in the context of things he doesn't support: a “climate jobs plan,” a $15 minimum wage and more money for public schools.

Republican Governors Association, “How Liberal.” Just a few races for governor have looked winnable for the out-of-power party this year; Republicans look strong in Montana, but no other race has gotten very competitive. Republicans have unleashed a series of ads in North Carolina to chip away at Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, whose popularity surged during the coronavirus outbreak and whose rural roots have given him a slightly broader win map than other Democrats. This is one of several ads that portrays Cooper as a liberal phony: “When he told you stay inside and close your business, he marched with protesters.”

Chip Roy, “Reclaim.” A Republican narrowly elected in 2018, Roy is one of several Texas conservatives fighting for what was drawn to be a safe seat — starting in Austin and cutting through conservative parts of the Hill Country. Austin stars in this ad, which starts by linking unrest in this city to Democratic nominee Wendy Davis, and ends with Roy touting his legislation that would allow citizens to “sue reckless mayors and city councils if they cede the streets to violent mobs."

Voting wars

In South Carolina, Democrats fretted about a Supreme Court ruling that reinstated a rule, lifted by a lower court, that had required witness signatures on absentee ballots. Although thousands of mail ballots had been mailed without the witness signatures, the court's three most conservative justices (Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil M. Gorsuch) argued that those ballots shouldn't count; the majority ruled that ballots that arrive by Oct. 7 should count under the temporary, relaxed rules.

And in Florida, the state reacted to the crash of its voter registration website by extending the deadline from yesterday to 7 p.m. tonight.

Poll watch

How did the president behave in handling the risk of coronavirus infection to the people around him? (CNN/SSRS, 1,205 respondents)

Irresponsibly: 63% Responsibly: 33%

The president's illness and three-night hospitalization happened so quickly and so recently, with so few precedents, that pollsters are still sifting through its impact. But the first polling since Friday has found no evident “sympathy bump” for Trump and a wide array of voters frustrated with how he handled the diagnosis, as details on his positive test and subsequent actions keep dribbling out.

Presidential election in Pennsylvania (Monmouth, 500 registered voters)

Joe Biden: 54% (+5) Donald Trump: 42% (-3)

Polling that has been conducted since both the first presidential debate and the president’s contraction of covid-19 have found Biden with some of his best numbers since the summer. In the down-ballot races tested here, Democrats have improved by a net of two to five points, so Biden’s movement stands out. His favorable rating is a net 18 points higher than Trump’s, and in northeast Pennsylvania, where Trump’s gains sealed the 2016 election, Biden is comfortably ahead. (See the geographic breakdown of Pennsylvania here.)

Presidential election in Michigan (Glengariff Group, 600 likely voters)

Joe Biden: 48% (+1) Donald Trump: 39% (-2)

Every Midwest state that backed Trump narrowly in 2016 has moved toward Biden in the past few weeks, powered by movement by voters over 65 away from the Trump campaign. Biden's overwhelming lead in southeast Michigan, especially in Detroit's suburbs, is not new; even in defeat, as voters in Macomb County and “downriver” of Detroit bolted to Trump, Hillary Clinton won much of the region. More worrying for the president is a small seven-point lead outside the suburbs, smaller than his 2016 advantage and smaller than the margin Republicans won out of these areas in 2018, when they were routed statewide. (And here is Michigan.)

Presidential election in Arizona (NYT/Siena, 655 likely voters)

Joe Biden: 49% Donald Trump: 41% (+1)

The Sun Belt hasn't seen the same Democratic boost as the Midwest over the past few weeks. Polls in Florida have been stable, with the president always tied or within the margin of error. Nevada has been under-polled, but with one exception (a Fox News survey), has remained competitive with a Biden lead. Arizona has remained steady, too; the problem for Republicans is that there's no evidence of improvement in Maricopa County, where most of the state's votes are cast and where Democrats have made broad gains in the outer suburbs of Phoenix. (And Arizona.)

Congressional race in New Jersey's 2nd District (Monmouth, 588 likely voters)

Amy Kennedy (D): 49% Jeff Van Drew (R): 44%

This is Monmouth's first look at a district that Van Drew won as a Democrat, that Republicans struggled to find a solid recruit in, and that flipped toward the party when the incumbent, nervous about getting renominated if he voted not to impeach the president, switched parties. This poll pegs that as the wrong bet: While no Democrat who opposed impeachment lost a primary this year, Van Drew is struggling in a district that isn't particularly conservative. Trump trails by three points in a district he carried by five, and Kennedy, who is married to former Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island but never ran for office before this year, is viewed more positively than negatively; Van Drew's favorability is slightly underwater.

Candidate tracker

The topsy-turvy phase of the presidential campaign continued through the start of the week, with Joe Biden continuing to hold live, in-person events and President Trump speaking through tweets and videos recorded at the White House.

Biden spent Monday in South Florida, with events focused on non-White voters and a town hall, hosted by MSNBC, that was stacked with friendly questioners. Biden’s too-late-to-change rhetorical habits were on display — a question about working across party lines inspired a lengthy story about Jesse Helms, who died 12 years ago — but he made no mistakes and made news when asked what he would do to “protect women’s reproductive rights” if Judge Amy Coney Barrett joined the Supreme Court.

“She may very well move to overrule Roe,” Biden said. “The only thing, the only responsible response to that, would be to pass legislation making Roe the law of the land. That's what I would do.”

That mirrored a position some liberals, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, held during the Democratic primary. But it was not Biden’s position and demonstrated how he’d moved on abortion since leaving the vice presidency. From his partial isolation, Trump tweeted that “Biden just took a more Liberal position on Roe v. Wade than Elizabeth Warren at her highest” and “wants to PACK our great United States Supreme Court,” the latter being a position Biden has not taken.

Biden spoke in Gettysburg, Pa., on Tuesday, once again laying out the stakes of the election, while it was unclear when the president would return to the trail. Mike Pence and Kamala D. Harris are in Salt Lake City today, ahead of their debate, and both head to Arizona on Thursday to resume campaigning.


… one day until the vice-presidential debate … nine days until the second presidential debate … 16 days until the third presidential debate … 28 days until the general election … 69 days until the electoral college votes