Kamala Harris and Mike Pence
Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris will lock horns in their first and only debate on the 2020 campaign in Salt Lake City on Wednesday night.
But the coronavirus is casting a shadow over the show.
With less than four weeks to election day, the pandemic's presence in the nation is greater than ever and the political fate of incumbent President Donald Trump and his rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
More than 211,000 people in the U.S. have died of Covid-19 this year, and millions more have lost their livelihoods to pandemic standstills and economic stagnation.
Those infected include Trump, 74, who announced on Friday that he and First Lady Melania Trump had tested positive for coronavirus after months of downplaying the severity of the deadly virus.
Trump was hospitalized and treated aggressively at Walter Reed Medical Center over the next three days. During those 72 hours, more than a dozen White House employees and Republican lawmakers announced that they too had tested positive for the virus.
Pence and Harris will take the stage just two days after Trump is released from the hospital into the care of White House doctors. Pence tested negative for the virus, but as a precaution he and Harris will be more than 12 feet apart and separated by plexiglass.
The 90-minute debate will take place at Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah at 9 p.m. ET. The event will be streamed live on CNBC.com and aired on White House pool networks.
Here's what Pence and Harris each need to do:
Pence needs to be in the spotlight
The president's hospitalization has drastically changed the dynamics of the debate, said Mitchell McKinney, director of the Institute for Political Communication at the University of Missouri and an expert on presidential debates.
"Like many people, I initially thought that most of the attention on Wednesday would be on Harris, but so much has changed in the past week with the president in the hospital," McKinney told CNBC on Tuesday.
"Voters are now looking at Mike Pence with a new sense of urgency."
Biden's age of 77 was a frequent target of the Trump campaign, which openly made claims about his sanity and sanity. But Trump's diagnosis and pressing questions about his condition have put more pressure on Pence to demonstrate his leadership.
"Both presidential candidates are old and have health problems," said Aaron Kall, director of the University of Michigan debate program.
"So are these [vice-presidential] candidates ready to intervene immediately? Are they experienced? Are they good tempered?" Said Kall. "The voters of the debate will really ask these questions given the health of the two front-runners."
Harris must tie Pence to Trump's worst excesses
Harris may be debating pence, but she should also target Trump, McKinney said.
"Harris has to question the entire Trump operation, all the mess. She's going to take it to Mike Pence, but the case she's pursuing is the case against Trump," he said.
Pence was one of Trump's most loyal and outspoken defenders during his tumultuous first term. A longtime public figure and former talk radio host, he's good at the kind of verbal tournament that goes into a debate. Pence scored a clear victory over then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's runner-up, Senator Tim Kaine, in their 2016 debate.
But he might be forced to defend himself against Harris, a former prosecutor who showed in Democratic elementary school that she was ready to continue the attack.
"There's a gender element here. It's usually the candidate who brings the most aggression on stage to show she's ready for it," McKinney said.
"The expectation is that she will pick this rosy picture that Pence is supposed to introduce to all of us."
Pence can use the format
With Trump out of the election campaign, Pence has to fill the gap – a huge task given recent polls which show Biden's lead over the president is double-digit in national polls.
However, the format of the debate on Wednesday evening should work in pence's favor.
"The Vice Presidential Debate has always been more of a discussion and less of a podium than the top of the ticket debates," said McKinney. "That benefits Pence because that's his style."
Pence and Harris will be seated at the tables Wednesday night.
The Presidential Debate Commission will place the two candidates more than 12 feet apart as part of its list of virus-related adjustments. There will be no handshake between contestants or with USA Today's presenter Susan Page.
The commission also announced this week that there will be a plexiglass wall between them – a decision that reportedly led Pence's team to object.
On Wednesday night, Pence will have to reassure voters that the chaos in the White House is only temporary, McKinney said.
Harris doesn't have to defend her record
In last year's Democratic primary debates, Harris was stumbled upon by Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who was focusing on Harris' record as a former prosecutor.
Pence could take a similar path, comparing the California senator's record to the Biden campaign platform it now supports.
Harris should stay out of this position, said Kall.
"She really doesn't have to defend her record," said Kall. As Biden's runner-up, her job is "to support the person at the top of the ticket. So your position is Joe Biden's position."
Pence was supposed to deliver the "Trojan horse"
Numerous speakers at the Republican National Convention last month, including Pence and Trump, portrayed Biden as a "Trojan horse" – that is, a politically milquetoastic means by which radical left Democrats can smuggle radically progressive politics.
If Pence gets that message across effectively in the debate, he could deal a heavy blow to Harris by suggesting to viewers on the fence that Biden's younger, more liberal runner-up would actually run the show.
"It's easier to do that than attacking Biden directly," said Kall. "In a way, Biden proved Teflon."
The usual attack labels that often stick to democratic politicians – "socialist", "radical", "far left" – seem to bounce off Biden.
But "these are much more easily pinned to them," said Kall of Harris, "and they are much more likely to be effective."