Takeaways from the only U.S. vice presidential debate

By Andy Sullivan

(Reuters) - Wednesday night's matchup between Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic challenger Senator Kamala Harris opened without the fireworks that marred last week's chaotic debate between President Donald and former Vice President Joe Biden.

But 's COVID-19 infection, and his and Biden's advanced age, makes this perhaps the most consequential U.S. vice presidential debate in living memory.

Here are a few things to watch:

COLORING INSIDE THE LINES

Following last week's chaotic, insult-laden debate between Biden and , moderator Susan Page warned both candidates that she would strictly enforce rules designed to ensure decorum. "We want a debate that is lively. But Americans also deserve a discussion that is civil," she said.

Both candidates were on their best behavior at the outset and wrapped up their statements when warned by Page.

"Senator Harris, it's a privilege to be on the stage with you," Pence said - after Harris said that the administration's coronavirus response was "the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country."

DINGING BIDEN ON PLAGARISM

Candidates typically show up with a quiver of prepared one-liners, and Pence loosed one early.

He accused Biden of copying the administration's plan to fight the coronavirus, dredging up charges of plagiarism that helped sink Biden's first presidential run in 1988.

"It looks a little bit like plagiarism, which is something Joe Biden knows a little bit about," he said.

OUTSIZED IMPORTANCE

In 2008, when he was Barack Obama's running mate, Biden said that "no one decides who they're going to vote for based on the vice president." Yet this debate has outsized importance.

Biden, 77, would be the oldest president in U.S. history if he were to win the election, and he has hinted he might only serve one term.

, only slightly younger at 74, spent the weekend at a military hospital outside Washington after contracting the novel coronavirus.

Story continues

From purely an actuarial standpoint, Pence, 61, and Harris, 55, would be more likely to step into the presidency than other vice presidential candidates. That is sure to be a major subtext on Wednesday night.

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Pence also carries an additional burden as he has been tasked with campaigning for the ticket as has been sidelined because of his COVID-19 infection.

BARRIERS AND MASKS

Eager for every advantage, campaigns often battle over everything from the format of the debate to the height of the podiums.

This time around, they have been at odds over coronavirus protections. The Salt Lake City debate stage will feature a Plexiglas barrier between the two candidates, which was installed over the objections of Pence's aides. They also will stand more than 12 feet (3.6 m) apart on stage.

Debate organizers handed out salmon-colored masks to all debate attendees and cordoned off alternative rows in the theater where the debate will be held to promote social distancing.

It will be a potent reminder that opinion polls show the coronavirus is the most important issue for voters, outstripping traditional concerns like the economy and national security. Pence has headed the administration's coronavirus task force as the pandemic has killed more than 210,000 Americans and shut down wide swaths of the economy.

Members of 's entourage refused to wear masks at last week's debate in Cleveland, just two days before he and his wife, Melania, tested positive. The Commission on Presidential Debates has said anyone who does not wear a mask will be “escorted out.”

GUEST LIST

Along with the usual campaign insiders and VIPs, both candidates have invited a handful of guests as a symbol of their priorities.

Pence has invited the parents of Kayla Mueller, who U.S. authorities say was tortured and sexually abused by Islamic State militants before being killed in 2014. The Justice Department said on Wednesday that two suspects in her death had arrived in the United States to face trial.

Carl and Marsha Mueller have said Obama's administration should have done more to rescue her and spoke in support of at the Republican nomination in August.

Pence also invited business owner Flora Westbrooks, whose hair studio was destroyed in riots in Minneapolis following the police killing of Black man George Floyd, and Ann Dorn, the widow of a retired police officer who was killed during protests in St. Louis.

Harris has invited Utah Democratic state Representative Angela Romero and Deborah Gatrell, a candidate for Salt Lake City Council and former military helicopter pilot who currently works as a teacher.

The campaign said in a press release that "they both showcase the resolve hard-working Americans have shown as Donald has failed to control the virus and save the economy."

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Additional reporting by Michael Martina in Salt Lake City; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney)

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