Vice presidential debate live updates: Pence vs. Harris and what you need to know

ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

By LIBBY CATHEY, ABC News

(SALT LAKE CITY) -- With plexiglass and more than 12 feet of distance separating them, Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic nominee Sen. Kamala Harris of California will debate in Salt Lake City on Wednesday night in the first and only one-on-one matchup between the vice presidential candidates.

The showdown comes as President Donald Trump and several in his orbit have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, raising questions on a transfer of power to the vice president were Trump at 74 -- or Democratic nominee Joe Biden at 77 -- to become too ill to serve.

The 90-minute debate airs commercial-free from 9 to 10:30 p.m. ET on ABC and ABC News Live. Network coverage begins at 8 p.m. with a one-hour 20/20 special, "Pence vs. Harris: The Vice Presidential Debate." ABC News Live will begin streaming coverage at 7 p.m. with ABC News' political team providing context and analysis on both platforms following the debate.

The debate's format will be divided into nine 10-minute sections with each candidate having two minutes to respond to the opening question in each segment and the remaining time allowed for follow ups. Moderator Susan Page, Washington Bureau chief of USA Today, has not released the topics. The sole vice presidential debate follows Trump and Biden's chaotic debate last week in Cleveland.

It's likely the coronavirus crisis will take center stage as Pence serves as head of the group tasked with containing the pandemic and Harris, a former prosecutor, has argued the case against the administration's handling of COVID-19 in recent campaign appearances.

The University of Utah, the site of Wednesday's debate, has stressed that fewer than 100 student attendees will be spaced out in the audience and that masks will be required.

Here is how the news is developing Wednesday. All times Eastern:

Oct 07, 3:58 pm

Biden says Harris will 'do well' against Pence

Former Vice President Joe Biden told reporters his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris will “do well” against Vice President Mike Pence when they meet on the debate stage in Salt Lake City in a matter of hours.

Exiting from his car in Wilmington, Delaware, and giving a quick wave to reporters, Biden initially ignored shouted questions from the press about his advice for Harris.

Biden then turned back and said, “She’s gonna do well” with a thumbs up before he entered the building for a fundraising event.

-ABC News' Molly Nagle

Oct 07, 3:46 pm

Pence vs. Harris on the issues: COVID-19

In February, Trump announced that Pence would lead the federal government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the biggest crisis he's ever managed in his political career. Pence held numerous White House Coronavirus Task Force briefings at the height of the pandemic and oversaw the deployment of personal protective equipment and ventilators to states facing an overwhelming number of patients.

Pence repeatedly downplayed the severity of the virus, both with his actions and public statements. He once said that the pandemic would largely be behind the nation by Memorial Day and in April, Pence disregarded a Mayo Clinic policy and did not wear a mask while visiting patients in Minnesota, even after his office was informed about the policy there.

Since that visit, Pence and his staff have been more consistent in wearing a mask in public, but he has occasionally walked a rope line after campaign events without one, signing autographs, but staying a few feet back.

Harris has continuously condemned Trump's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and repeatedly called for leaders to "listen to the scientists and the experts," on how to proceed. In August, when she and Biden sat down with ABC's "World News Tonight" anchor David Muir and "Good Morning America" co-anchor Robin Roberts, Harris said their approach will be guided by public health experts "unlike what we have seen now which are the politics guiding a public health crisis."

Harris has called for what she describes as a national "standard" for wearing masks. And on a possible vaccine for the coronavirus, Harris said she wouldn't solely believe Trump on its efficacy. She said she'd want to hear information from credible sources before believing it's safe. "I will not take his word for it," Harris said on CNN. "He wants us to ingest bleach."

-ABC News' Justin Gomez and Averi Harper

Oct 07, 3:09 pm

Harris, Pence both skilled in debate format

Both vice presidential nominees are seasoned debaters. During her ill-fated presidential primary bid, Harris participated in several debates and made headlines for her zingers, including a clash with Biden over busing to integrate schools. Expectations are high for her in the matchup against Pence, who hasn’t participated in a debate since 2016 but has held his own ground in the past.

In an interview with Hillary Clinton for her podcast “You and me Both,” Harris spoke about the challenges of preparing the debate, including her expectation that Pence could offer “a series of untruths” from the debate stage.

“I don't necessarily want to be the fact checker,” Harris said in the interview. “At the same time, you know, depending on how far he goes with whatever he does, he’s going to have to be accountable for what he says.”

Pence has called Harris a “skilled debater” and has told supporters at campaign events that he looks forward to being on stage with her, though he has remained mostly tight lipped about his expectations or how he’s been preparing for the matchup.

In 2016, Pence participated in the vice presidential debate against Sen. Tim Kaine and was seen to have successfully thwarted attacks over comments Trump made about women and Mexican immigrants, as well as his policy proposals.

During his debate against Kaine, Pence was disciplined, poised and polished and largely waited for his turn to get a response in.

-ABC News' Justin Gomez and Averi Harper

Oct 07, 2:17 pm

Experts express concerns about possible coronavirus transmission at vice president debate

Two, five-foot tall plexiglass walls will stand between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris at Wednesday night’s debate.

The thick plastic barriers, approved by the Commission on Presidential Debates, will try to prevent the possible transmission of the coronavirus as Pence and Harris face off onstage for 90 minutes.

The Debate Commission said the plexiglass was part of a “variety of health safety protocols,” according to a factsheet. “Plexiglass will be used as part of the CPD’s overall approach to health and safety.”

Experts say that among the many protective measures put in place, the proposed plexiglass may not be the most effective option, particularly in light of updates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to its guidelines on Monday acknowledging the potential for airborne transmission of the virus while indoors.

According to the CDC, it's possible for the virus to be transmitted beyond 6 feet by forming particles that can linger in the air for prolonged periods of time when infectious individuals “cough, sneeze, sing, talk, or breathe." The risk of airborne transmission is greatest in poorly ventilated indoor spaces as well as during prolonged exposure. Pence and Harris will be 12 feet apart from each other and from the moderator.

The clear dividers on stage could offer an added layer of protection, but it should not be a standalone measure, experts say.

More on experts concerns about safety protocols for the debate can be found here.

-ABC News' Sasha Pezenik and Ramie Fathy

Oct 07, 2:09 pm

Social distancing, plexiglass have been utilized in Senate debates over the past few weeks

Amid the controversy surrounding a plexiglass barrier at the vice presidential debate Wednesday, a number of Senate debates across the country have utilized the measures.

In last Friday's South Carolina debate, Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison brought his own plexiglass divider to his debate against Sen. Lindsey Graham.

Both candidates said they tested negative the day before the debate and those attending had to fill out a questionnaire saying they had no symptoms.

The Arizona Senate debate on Tuesday night also saw the candidates using plexiglass dividers.

In Colorado, Sen. Cory Gardner and Democratic challenger John Hickenlooper were separated with plexiglass dividers. Both candidates tested negative prior to the debate.

In North Carolina's debate last Thursday, plexiglass wasn't used, but Sen. Thom Tillis and challenger Cal Cunningham were socially distanced from each other and the moderator.

In Iowa, Theresa Greenfield and Sen. Joni Ernst shared a table with the moderators. All were separated by plexiglass barriers.

-ABC News' Meg Cunningham and Kendall Karson

Oct 07, 1:48 pm

Advocacy organizations gear up for debate showdown

Women's rights and advocacy organizations on the left have been working together to promote Harris's candidacy. This week they are gearing up too against what they fear will be sexist or otherwise biased attacks during the vice presidential debate Wednesday.

The long list of organizations, including BlackPAC, Color of Change PAC, EMILY's List WOMEN VOTE!, Planned Parenthood Votes! and UltraViolet say they are working in tandem on messaging and outreach. On the phone with ABC News, Shaunna Thomas, the head of UltraViolet, argued that female politicians are still more likely to face attacks -- subtle as they may be -- about their qualifications, trustworthiness and character. She said the coalition was planning to release content on social media and around neighborhoods Wednesday with an eye toward women of color in battleground states.

They want to underscore again the historic nature of the ticket.

"A lot of people are excited about this long overdue and historic moment for women of color and the whole country. Never has a woman of color served in such a position ... and it's time," she said.

The coordinated push comes as Biden again leaned into the issue of race and inequity in America on Tuesday during his event in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

"I think about what it takes for a Black person to love America that has a deep love for this country that has -- for far too long -- never been recognized," he said on the historic Civil War battlefield after talking about his conversations with the families of Black Americans whose loved ones have been killed by police.

-ABC News' MaryAlice Parks

Oct 07, 1:18 pm

Pence tests negative for COVID-19 on Wednesday

Vice President Mike Pence tested negative for the coronavirus on Wednesday, according to his office.

Pence’s office said on Tuesday that the vice president had gotten a negative PCR test Tuesday afternoon and negative rapid test Tuesday morning -- Pence had also gotten a negative PCR test Monday. Pence's most recent negative result was from an antigen test.

Pence’s office has not responded to questions about what type of test members of the vice president's group attending the debate were using.

Sen. Harris also tested negative for COVID-19 on Tuesday.

-ABC News' Ben Gittleson and Averi Harper

Oct 07, 1:07 pm

Inside Pence debate prep: 'On-message Mike' forced to defend Trump’s handling of coronavirus

While President Donald Trump resisted typical debate preparations, Vice President Mike Pence has held lengthy mock debate sessions and enlisted the help of a former prosecutor and state attorney general to play his opponent.

Former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi -- who was also a member of the president's impeachment defense team -- was tasked to play the role of Sen. Kamala Harris in mock debate sessions with Pence in Washington, D.C. before he left for Utah.

Bondi is a career prosecutor who has a history with Kamala Harris -- both served as state attorney generals.

"Kamala was my colleague when we were attorneys general together and she's very smart, she's a seasoned debated, you know she's career prosecutor so prosecutors can debate and they can debate well," Bondi told Fox News.

While top aides privately call Pence "on-message Mike," referring to his more measured, consistent tone, he will be forced to defend the Trump administration's handling of the coronavirus pandemic as the president suggests his contracting COVID-19 was an act of political courage to help him lead the fight against the virus.

Aides plan to use Pence's experience as the head of the White House coronavirus task force to frame him as being on the "front lines" of fighting for the American people on COVID-19.

Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has also been advising Pence. Walker helped Pence prepare for the last vice presidential debate against Sen. Tim Kaine in 2016.

Walker told Fox & Friends on Wednesday that there's no doubt Pence will face questions on COVID-19, but will focus on how the administration took quick action -- including shutting down China travel.

Walker said Pence will be "calm" but also "emotional and aggressive" during Wednesday's debate.

-ABC News' Rachel Scott and Katherine Faulders

Oct 07, 12:39 pm

Pelosi tells Harris to 'be yourself'

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters Wednesday that she's been texting with Sen. Kamala Harris about tonight's vice presidential debate.

Her advice to Harris: be yourself.

She also noted that health care will be a big topic tonight and encouraged Harris to beat that drum loudly.

-ABC News' Mariam Khan

Oct 07, 12:16 pm

Mike Pence: Everything you need to know

Vice President Mike Pence represents a more traditional style of the Republican Party compared to President Donald Trump but has been a loyal second-in-command throughout their first term in office. Pence has been at the forefront, sometimes leading, major policy efforts of the Trump administration, such as the White House's response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The pair did not personally know one another prior to their 2016 race, but their first term has strengthened their bond. Pence has been steadfast in his support for the president through controversy, whether it was a ban on travel into the U.S. from predominantly Muslim countries, Trump's impeachment by the House of Representatives and trial in the Senate, or the decision to resume large, in-person campaign events amid coronavirus.

Read more on Pence's background here.

-ABC News' Justin Gomez

Oct 07, 11:29 am

Pence vs. Harris on the issues: Abortion

He speaks at March for Life, the nation's largest annual rally against abortion. She presented a landmark plan to protect abortion rights.

Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris are set to face off on Wednesday in a debate bound to display their drastically opposing views on the issue, which takes on renewed urgency as the Senate considers the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court. Harris is in the unique position of being a sitting Senator who will decide Barrett's fate ahead of the election.

The two vice presidential candidates represent opposite sides of the spectrum on reproductive rights, as nationwide support for abortion rights remains high. A July 2019 ABC News/Washington Post poll found 60% of Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, with only 24% saying abortion access should be harder.

A May 2020 poll by Gallup found similar results, with only 20% of respondents saying abortion should be illegal in all circumstances.

Read more on the candidates' positions on abortion here.

-ABC News' Alexandra Svokos

Oct 07, 10:41 am

Pence charged with sorting out Trump-centered chaos at VP debate

If Wednesday night showcases Sen. Kamala Harris the prosecutor, consider the new evidence added to her case.

And if Vice President Mike Pence is cast as the best explainer and defender of Trumpism, consider how much harder his job has become.

It's been eight short but incredibly long days since the first presidential debate. Since then, President Donald Trump has struggled to denounce white supremacism; refused to commit to accepting the results of the election; spread falsehoods about the voting process; been diagnosed with COVID-19, amid a full-fledged Washington outbreak; choreographed a triumphant return to the White House to urge the nation not to let the pandemic "dominate"; pulled the plug on further coronavirus relief talks until after the election and then reconsidered the move in some late-night tweets.

Enter the number twos -- in a campaign where there's seldom been more attention on the potential need for their services.

Pre-debate squabbles in Salt Lake City include fighting over plexiglass partitions and more space between the candidates to accommodate social distancing. What's really separating the vice-presidential candidates, though, are campaigns of the men at the top of the ticket -- who have distinct styles that are nothing like those of their running mates or each other.

Four years ago, it was Pence holding steady and calm in a debate with a feisty Sen. Tim Kaine, who faced blowback for his interruptions in a mild-mannered affair. Just last year, Harris' main debate opponent was the man she now shares a ticket with -- bringing set-piece attacks that appeared to nick former Vice President Joe Biden.

Now, amid the chaos of the moment and the relative stability of the campaign, Harris will bring a case that Pence might be uniquely equipped to defend.

-ABC News' Political Director Rick Klein

Oct 07, 10:10 am

Harris tests negative for coronavirus

Sen. Harris underwent PCR testing for COVID-19 yesterday and COVID-19 was not detected, per a Harris aide.

-ABC News' Averi Harper

Oct 07, 9:49 am

Kamala Harris: Everything you need to know

California Sen. Kamala Harris was selected as former Vice President Joe Biden's running mate on Aug. 11. She is the first woman of color on a major party's ticket, and if elected, she'd be the first woman and first woman of color to serve as vice president.

Her nomination came after serving as senator for California and as the state's attorney general -- and after her own, unsuccessful presidential nomination run. She suspended her presidential bid on Dec. 3, 2019 because, she wrote in an email to supporters, she didn't have the financial resources to continue.

Read more on Harris' background here.

-ABC News' Tessa Weinberg Sruthi Palaniappan

Oct 07, 9:04 am

Debate safety measures a matter of contention between the two camps

In response to COVID-19 concerns from Kamala Harris’ team, the Commission on Presidential debates has agreed to add additional safety precautions at the debate.

Vice President Mike Pence and Harris will be seated 12-feet and 3 inches away from each other and from the debate moderator, USA Today Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page. As was the case at the presidential debate, there will be no handshakes between the candidates, and while the commission said there would also be plexiglass separating Harris, Pence and Page, the Pence campaign has objected to using it.

A senior administration official in Pence’s office told ABC News Tuesday that there had been no formal agreement about the plexiglass and that while Harris and Page could use it, Pence doesn’t want to.

In a statement to ABC News, Pence spokeswoman Katie Miller said, "If Sen. Harris wants to use a fortress around herself, have at it."

Though Harris, Pence and Page will not wear masks on stage, everyone else in the debate hall will be required to wear one. Anyone who takes their mask off will be escorted out, according to the rules.

During the presidential debate in Cleveland, members of the Trump family were seen sitting in the audience without masks, even after being asked to put them on.

Harris and Pence will be tested prior to the debate, according to the commission, which is a change from the presidential debate when the campaigns were responsible for testing their candidates and traveling parties.

“They’ve got to wear a mask, and if they take their mask off they're gonna be escorted out, and I don't care who they are, they'll be escorted out,” said Frank Fahrenkopf, chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, in an interview with ABC News.

The vice president has tested negative each day since Friday, and his White House physician has cleared him from having to quarantine, citing that he is not a “close contact” with anyone who’s tested positive, including Trump.

But Pence was present at the Rose Garden ceremony on Sept. 26 when Trump announced Judge Amy Coney Barrett as his U.S. Supreme Court nominee. Eleven of the attendees have since tested positive for COVID-19. He was also in the Oval Office with Trump the morning of his debate, just days before the president tested positive.

Harris tested negative for COVID-19 Monday after being screened in Salt Lake City, where she has been gearing up for the debate, according to an aide.

Oct 07, 8:24 am

Pence will get first question at debate

Pence will get the first question at Wednesday’s vice presidential debate, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced Tuesday evening, along with a few more details of what viewers can expect.

Pence will be seated stage left. Harris will be seated stage right.

The candidates will be socially distanced with 12 feet and three inches of space between the center of one chair and the center of the other chair.

Similar to last week’s presidential debate, there will be no opening or closing statements.

Unlike last week, nine 10-minute pods of discussion will fill the 90-minute debate. Each pod will start with a question. The first candidate will get two minutes to answer. The second candidate will then get two minutes. After that, there will be six minutes of discussion.

Oct 07, 7:43 am

COVID-19 looms large over vice presidential debate

In the days since President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden took the stage for their first presidential debate in Cleveland, Ohio, last week, the coronavirus has become even more of a central campaign issue than ever as the vice presidential candidates prepare for their only debate in Salt Lake City, Utah, Wednesday night.

The way the Trump administration has handled the pandemic is likely to be central to the debate as the White House deals with a cluster of COVID-19 cases, including the infection of Trump himself, amid a campaign and administration that have downplayed the virus and flouted the advice of health experts.

On Wednesday night, Trump's stance on masks, his decision to restart large campaign rallies that pack thousands together with no opportunity to socially distance and his admission to Bob Woodward that he downplayed the severity of the coronavirus will likely be brought up, with the spate of White House coronavirus cases giving Harris new ammunition to claim the administration hasn't taken the pandemic seriously enough.

Pence may also be asked to answer for Trump's words, comparing COVID-19 to the flu as recently as Tuesday and previously saying the virus would just "disappear."

Harris has previously said Trump has shown "a reckless disregard for the wellbeing of the American people" by failing to contain the outbreak and is likely to continue that line of attack.

"Even now, some eight months into this crisis, Donald Trump still won’t take responsibility. He still won’t act," Harris said in a speech on Aug. 27.

Pence will likely defend Trump by saying he ordered the manufacturing of personal protective equipment (PPE), sent ventilators to states and shut down travel from China as evidence he sprung into action early on. He may use Trump's short hospital stay as evidence of the progress made with regard to therapeutic drugs and to boost the president's position that Americans shouldn't let coronavirus "dominate" their lives.

Oct 07, 5:05 am

Debate changes in light of Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis

In light of President Trump's positive COVID-19 diagnosis and subsequent concerns from Harris' team, the Commission on Presidential Debates agreed to add additional safety precautions to Wednesday's debate at the University of Utah.

Unlike last week's presidential debate, everyone in the audience will be required to wear a face mask or covering and those who don't will be escorted out of the venue.

"They've got to wear a mask, and if they take their mask off they're gonna be escorted out, and I don't care who they are, they'll be escorted out," Frank Fahrenkopf, chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, told ABC News.

Harris and Pence will be tested prior to the debate, according to the commission, a change from the presidential debate when campaigns were responsible for testing their candidates and traveling parties.

And the candidates will be separated by more than just the issues -- or at least one of them will be.

After Pence's close proximity to others who have tested positive for COVID-19, the Harris campaign requested plexiglass barriers be used at the debate and the commission agreed -- but the Pence campaign said Tuesday that they never agreed to a plexiglass partition.

A senior administration official in Pence's office told ABC News Tuesday that the CPD decided to publicize the new safety protocols before any formal agreement was made and that the moderator and the Harris campaign can do as they want, "but we do not."

The official said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines recommend plexiglass whenever 6 feet of separation isn't possible, but noted the candidates will be 12-feet apart on stage. The comment fell in line with Pence's chief of staff Marc Short who told The Washington Post Tuesday that plexiglass is "not needed."

Pence's communications director, Katie Miller, who tested positive for COVID-19 in May, also responded to the request in a statement to Axios earlier this week saying, "If Sen. Harris wants to use a fortress around herself, have at it."

Following news that Miller's husband, senior Trump aide Stephen Miller, tested positive for the coronavirus, she reportedly left Utah and a spokesperson declined to comment if Pence would agree to plexiglass.

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