Vice President Mike Pence debates Kamala Harris (Image: EPA/Shawn Thew)

Four years ago, Guy Rundle reminded us that according to FDR’s first vice president, the office is “not worth a warm bucket of piss”. That does not feel true this year.

This year, Donald Trump contracting COVID-19 and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Joe Biden’s occasional tendency for lethargic and rambling performances, make the character and record of their running mates — who met today in front of a modest crowd in Salt Lake City — particularly important.

Mike Pence — the moralist evangelical Christian happy to swallow Trumps near-relentless affronts to decency because he believes it is God’s will that he (Pence) should be one case of acute respiratory failure away from the presidency — did a solid job (“He did what he had to to do” is the NBC pundits conclusion after the debate).

Kamala Harris — the former prosecutor who would be the first woman of colour to hold the office — is at her strongest while kicking the Trump administration’s horrifying mismanagement of the pandemic. Coronavirus is one of the many subjects on which you feel Harris might be getting softball questions, until you realise there is simply no other way to phrase them.

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Pence, for example, did not reject the premise of a question about how shifty and misleading Trump’s doctors have been about the state of his health.

There was a moment when things got comparatively heated. Pence interrupted Harris and the two started sparring about what Biden’s plan for taxes really are, and it occurred to the viewer that this was about policy, implementation, detail. It’s … well, it was a political debate. The only real law breaking was Pence consistently going over his allotted time.

Compared to last week, it’s another world.

When Harris said that America’s response to COVID-19 has failed, Pence said “she’s doing the American people a disservice” given everything they’ve sacrificed. It’s tricky rhetorical judo — you know, like politicians do — but Trump would have spent the night shouting about Harris’ birth certificate. Pence took time before one answer to congratulate her on her “historic nomination”.

And when Pence pushed Harris on whether the democrats plan to expand the Supreme Court, it’s a fair question. (She avoided a straight answer, for the record.)

Pence briefly stumped Harris with a heart-tugging story about Kalya Mueller, an aid worker who died at the hands of ISIS. In Pence’s telling, it was because of the hesitations of Obama and Biden. But she was able to quickly pivot to Trump’s many slurs against American soldiers. Just as there is always a tweet, there’s always a scandal.

Harris has to walk that line that women (particularly women of colour) in politics always have to — she has to show emotion, but also steel, be serious, but not “hard” — and she navigated it well. Smiling as she insisted on more time, dead serious and down the camera lens as she told people reliant on Obamacare “they’re coming for you”, a little twinkle in her eye as she (kind of irrelevantly) brought up her mother’s story.

Both were asked whether they’ve had a discussion about succession plans in place with their elderly weirdo running mates (whoever’s elected will the be the oldest president in history, a genuinely sobering thought during a pandemic). Both took it as an opportunity to answer completely different questions.

I had gone into the debate thinking it was absurd that anyone would be wavering at this point — but Pence appears to be playing to undecided voters. He’s measured and detailed and, as he often is, signalling that he’s the adult in the room.

He only started to to throw in a few conspiratorial right wing talking points — largely around voter fraud — towards the end. As Harris responded, someone in the audience started audibly sneezing, and it started to feel like its 2020 again.

Pence answered the cutesy last question way better. It was written in by a child, and it’s exactly what you’d expect: “how can citizens get along if politicians never do, etc etc” . He broadly praised freedom and the civility between people of different political persuasions, while Harris’ attempt to use it to sell Biden again came across as tacky in comparison.

Still, while Pence was solid, you’d have to say Harris won, because, well, this one was actually a debate.