October 7, 2020

The vice presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, as of now, is still on for tonight. And that leads me to three questions:

  • Are they really going to pull this thing off while a sizable portion of the White House has tested positive for coronavirus?
  • This debate has to be more civil and productive than last week’s debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, right?
  • And does it even feel relevant at this point, with all else that is going on in the country?

The answers are: yes, yes and yes.

Using extra safety precautions, although only after some lengthy and tense negotiations between the two camps, the debate will go on as planned, it appears.

Yes, you would think it will be more civil and productive if the candidates and campaigns paid attention to the negative reaction that last week’s Trump-Biden debate received.

And, yes, we should hope it’s relevant, although it might not change any minds.

CNN senior political commentator David Axelrod writes that Pence likely will “deliver the PG version of Trump’s debate brief, argued with more finesse but still honing in on Biden as the vessel for the ‘radical left.’” He also, Axelrod predicts, will hammer topics like “law and order” and economic recovery. Meanwhile, Axelrod believes Harris will promote Biden and his plans, while certainly making the coronavirus a major talking point.

(PolitiFact’s Josie Hollingsworth has “How to Watch the 2020 Vice Presidential Debate.”)

The debate, as with all debates, will also depend on the third person on the stage: the moderator. In this case, it will be USA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page.
Who is Page? She has spent 47 years in journalism, where she has covered 10 presidential elections, six administrations and interviewed nine presidents. She likely won’t have to play referee as much as Chris Wallace did in the Trump-Biden debate, and you would expect fair and tough questions for both candidates.

Page is coming off a recent controversy after a Congressional investigation revealed that she hosted a “Girls’ Night Out” event at her home in 2018 in honor of Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma. The investigation found that the event was paid for in part by the agency Verma now heads, meaning taxpayer dollars were used for a social gathering — a violation of government rules. Page, who also paid more than $4,000 for the event, was criticized for hosting the event in her home, which many argued conflicted with her ability to cover the administration objectively.

USA Today defended Page’s role, saying Page didn’t know the administration was billed and that hosting the party did not violate any ethical standards. It also pointed out that these events are fairly common and have been hosted by other prominent journalists such as “CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell and “PBS NewsHour” anchor Judy Woodruff.

This piece originally appeared in The Poynter Report.

Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer. For the latest media news and analysis, delivered free to your inbox each and every weekday morning, sign up for his Poynter Report newsletter.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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