Vice President Mike Pence is in a familiar spot: standing by President Donald Trump.
With Trump hospitalised with a virus that he spent months downplaying, his ever-loyal No. 2 will play an increasingly prominent role in the weeks ahead.
Pence will take a leading role in campaigning around the country in the final stretch before the Nov. 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 Pence will be especially bright on Wednesday when he will participate in the vice presidential debate with California Sen. Kamala Harris.
Pence will almost certainly be pressed to explain shifting accounts of the president’s health over the weekend and justify 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 Sen. 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.
Pence has often been called upon to smooth over fallout from Trump’s messy decision making and divisive policies.
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 womanizing and the more traditional branch of the Republican Party, particularly conservative evangelicals.
The smooth diction and humble demeanor 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 hasn’t 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.
During an interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC when he was governor, Pence grew flustered after failing to answer direct questions about whether discrimination against gay people should be legal.
George!” Pence protested before letting out an audible sigh. C’mon.
The debate with Harris will be a major test. The former California prosecutor’s political rise was fueled by searing exchanges with political rivals during major congressional hearings.
And she is certain to press the issue of the virus and Trump’s diagnoses when the two meet in Salt Lake City.
That will be his challenge. But it is one he is well-suited for, said Cam Savage, a veteran Republican strategist from Indiana who has closely observed Pence’s political career.
With Pence you get a very disciplined leader who is not likely to make mistakes. One major uncertainty is what sort of condition 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 Center as early as Monday.
But Trump’s blood oxygen level abruptly dropped twice in recent days and he was given supplemental oxygen before his hospitalization. His doctors continued to evade basic questions about his health on Sunday.
There are also concerns that Pence could himself could catch the virus while campaigning, a troubling scenario that raises serious questions about national security and the transfer of power if either he or Trump took a turn for the worse.
After the debate, Pence says, it’s back to business as usual and the campaign has appearances planned for him, as well as Trump’s children and other top surrogates in an effort billed as Operation MAGA.
Pence is slated to visit Arizona and Florida and will return to Indiana on Friday to vote early.