Attack or defend?
In 2016, Mr. Pence had a clear three-step strategy every time his vice-presidential rival, Mr. Kaine, attacked Mr. Trump. He offered a quick defense of Mr. Trump (Step 1); moved quickly to talk about the aspirations of a Trump presidency (Step 2); and swung into an attack on the Democrats (Step 3).
But striking the balance between attack and defend could be a particular challenge for Mr. Pence this time.
For one thing, after four years, there’s more to defend. This would have been a much different debate nine months ago, when Mr. Pence could have talked about the humming economy, job growth and a generally confident electorate. Now, Mr. Pence is going to be talking about the pandemic, the failure so far of Congress and the White House to come up with a stimulus plan and an economy that has gone off the rails.
For another, Mr. Trump has not had much luck attacking Mr. Biden so far; the former vice president has proved an elusive target, certainly when compared with Mrs. Clinton. Perhaps Mr. Pence will have more success.
But he has a third task as well: attacking Ms. Harris. Mr. Trump’s efforts at portraying Ms. Harris as a stalking horse for more liberal policies, who would be the power behind a Biden presidency, has resonated with the right. But those voters were already with Mr. Trump. The task for Mr. Pence is to make them resonate with any remaining undecided voters.
A preview of 2024?
Almost every vice-presidential debate is about two elections at once: the current one and the one that will follow — because so many vice presidents, and vice-presidential candidates, eventually run for president. (A quick recent list: John Edwards, Joe Lieberman, George H.W. Bush, Al Gore and, of course, Mr. Biden.)
This face-off is especially significant because of how soon both Mr. Pence and Ms. Harris could be leading their parties, given the ages of Mr. Trump (74) and Mr. Biden (77) and the specter of the coronavirus, from which Mr. Trump continues to recover.