Watching Kamala Harris take the stage tonight for her debate with Mike Pence, many Democrats may be wondering the same thing: Why would she agree to appear in person, just a few feet away from the vice president, amid a coronavirus outbreak that has ravaged the White House and infected President Donald Trump?
The answer, above all, is that the Biden campaign does not want to shift the public’s focus away from Trump’s unsteady handling of the COVID-19 crisis—not even to a debate about whether to debate.
In that way, the campaign’s decision for Harris to participate reflects the same messaging discipline that’s led Joe Biden to brush off questions about, say, whether he supports packing the Supreme Court: He doesn’t want to provide any opportunity for the GOP to talk about anything but Trump’s performance.
Multiple sources inside the Biden campaign told me officials never seriously explored withdrawing from tonight’s debate or demanding that the Commission on Presidential Debates stage a virtual contest instead. Nor is the campaign, at this point, pushing either of those options ahead of the second Trump-Biden face-off next week.
“Our point in this campaign is not about Donald Trump’s personal health; it’s about how he has handled the pandemic that’s killed 200,000 people,” said one Biden-campaign senior adviser, who, like others I talked with, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the team’s internal deliberations. “We’re not going to let this become a debate on what’s going to happen on the 15th.”