Vice President Mike Pence waves to supporters after speaking in Des Moines, Iowa (Charlie Neibergall/AP)
05 October 2020

Spotlight falls on Mike Pence ahead of vice presidential debate as Donald Trump remains in hospital

Donald Trump’s illness has put the spotlight on his vice president, Mike Pence, a month before the election.

Mr Pence will take a leading role in campaigning around the country in the final stretch before the November 3 election, aiming to keep the president’s supporters energised and deflecting criticism of his handling of a virus that has killed over 205,000 Americans.

The president’s positive diagnosis on Friday has intensified scrutiny of the administration’s cavalier approach to the pandemic.

The spotlight on Mr Pence will be especially bright on Thursday when he will participate in the vice presidential debate with California Senator Kamala Harris.

Normally, the vice presidential debate is inconsequential. That is not the case in 2020

Mr Pence will almost certainly be pressed to explain shifting accounts of the president’s health over the weekend and justify Mr Trump’s decision to hold large in-person campaign rallies during a pandemic, events that often flouted public health guidelines by congregating thousands of mostly mask-less supporters.

“Normally, the vice presidential debate is inconsequential.

“That is not the case in 2020,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential bid.

“The public has so many questions about how we got here and it’s an opportunity for Pence to answer some of those.”

Mr Pence has often been called upon to smooth over fallout from Mr Trump’s messy decision making and divisive policies.

Judge Amy Coney Barrett, left, President Donald Trump’s nominee for the US Supreme Court, is escorted to the Senate by Vice President Mike Pence (J. Scott Applewhite/AP) (AP)

Since the 2016 campaign, he has served as a bridge of sorts between a brash, thrice-married former reality television star who long bragged about womanising and the more traditional branch of the Republican Party, particularly conservative evangelicals.

The smooth diction and humble demeanour Mr Pence brings to the role was honed in the 1990s when he was a conservative talk-radio host in Indiana, when he referred to himself as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf”.

His approach has not always been successful.

As Indiana’s governor from 2013 to 2017, he was so relentlessly on-message that he sometimes struggled to contain fallout from fast-moving crises.

That includes his handling of backlash over a 2015 law he signed that allowed business owners to deny service to gay people for religious reasons, which was later amended as a result of the uproar.

The debate with Ms Harris, Joe Biden’s running mate, will be a major test.

The former California prosecutor’s political rise was fuelled by searing exchanges with political rivals during major congressional hearings.

And she is certain to press the issue of the virus and Mr Trump’s diagnoses when the two meet in Salt Lake City.

Kamala Harris will face Mike Pence in the vice-presidential debate (John Locher/AP) (AP)

One major uncertainty is what sort of condition Mr Trump will be in during the weeks ahead.

His administration has offered rosy assessments of his health and said he could be released from Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre as early as Monday.

But Mr Trump’s blood oxygen level abruptly dropped twice in recent days and he was given supplemental oxygen before he was taken to hospital.

His doctors continued to evade basic questions about his health on Sunday.

After the debate, Mr Pence says, it is back to “business as usual” and the campaign has appearances planned for him, as well as Mr Trump’s children and other top surrogates in an effort billed as Operation Maga (Make America Great Again).

Mr Pence is scheduled to visit Arizona and Florida and will return to Indiana on Friday to vote early.

“We’ve got a campaign to run,” Mr Pence said on Saturday on a call with staff.

“I promise you, this president, as soon as his doctors say so, he’s going to be back out there.”

Mr Pence often evokes faith when describing his approach to public office, citing the biblical concept of “servant leadership”.

He has been a faithful servant to Mr Trump since he was plucked from a difficult bid for reelection as governor to join the presidential ticket in 2016.

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