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Mike Pence Gets A Rare Moment In The National Spotlight

NOEL KING, HOST:

Vice President Mike Pence, by his own admission, is a low-key presence. But tonight at the debate in Salt Lake City, he'll be one of two people - the other is Kamala Harris - who all eyes will be on. Here's NPR's Ayesha Rascoe.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Vice President Mike Pence is never shy about making sure people know exactly who's in charge. On Monday, as he left for the debate, he said President Trump had given him his marching orders.

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VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: When the president told me he was headed back to the White House, he told me to head to Utah.

RASCOE: Trump gave him a big assignment this year. He put them in charge of the Coronavirus Task Force. But even then, Pence always gave credit to Trump.

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PENCE: I also know how grateful people are that, from very early on, all the way back in January, President Trump has taken decisive action to put the health of America first.

RASCOE: But now Trump has been sidelined by his own bout with the coronavirus, and the White House is in crisis. Pence himself has had to issue a flurry of doctors memos to explain why he's allowed to travel. This all ups the pressure for Pence as he faces off against Sen. Kamala Harris. It's always a tricky position for vice presidents when their boss gets sick or injured, says Joel Goldstein. He's an expert on vice presidents from Saint Louis University. They don't want to look like they're moving in on the territory.

JOEL GOLDSTEIN: Vice presidents have to be very careful not to sort of appear to overstep, not to appear to be inviting power or courting influence.

RASCOE: He said part of it is optics. After former President Ronald Reagan was shot, his VP George H.W. Bush refused to land in a helicopter at the White House. Bush said that iconic spot on the South Lawn is reserved for the president. Remaining in the shadow of the commander in chief is a part of the job for a VP, but Goldstein says Pence has taken it to another level.

GOLDSTEIN: He's gone to greater extent than any other vice president that I can ever recall in terms of being effusive in his praise of the president, you know, being adulatory, you know, not simply deferential but perhaps obsequious.

RASCOE: That makes it awkward for Pence, who will have to defend Trump's handling of the disease that's now afflicting him and the chaos in the White House. But Pence is known for his calm and steady temperament. And Republican strategist Scott Jennings says that may be just what the campaign needs right now.

SCOTT JENNINGS: In some ways, he's been yin to Trump's yang, right? I mean, he's just a different attitude and a different sort of public persona. And I actually think that serves him well at a time like this.

RASCOE: Jennings says that VP debates don't normally matter, but this one is more important than usual.

JENNINGS: Trump is sick, and Biden ain't no spring chicken. And so (laughter), I mean, who the vice president is or may be is vital.

RASCOE: With Trump down in the polls, Jennings says Republicans are in desperate need of a win, especially on the pandemic and how Trump will get it all under control. So far, Trump shows no signs of changing his approach.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I learned so much about coronavirus. And one thing that's for certain - don't let it dominate you. Don't be afraid of it.

RASCOE: Trump also tweeted falsely that the coronavirus is not as deadly as the flu. That's just not true. Pence will likely be asked to explain these comments on the debate stage.

Ayesha Rascoe, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE GREG FOAT GROUP'S "THE DANCERS WALTZ") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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