By Jon Keller

BOSTON (CBS) – Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris meet Wednesday night in Utah for their only debate, an encounter being breathlessly described in some quarters as “the most consequential vice presidential debate in American political history.”

This might be the lowest bar in the history of American political hyperbole.

Vice presidential debates have only been a regular event since 1984, and like much of 1980’s pop culture have left negligible historical imprint. The consensus “most memorable” moment came in the 1988 snoozefest between Democratic nominee Lloyd Bentsen and Republican Dan Quayle, when Bentsen pounced on Quayle comparing his experience with that of John F. Kennedy when he sought the presidency in 1960: “You’re no Jack Kennedy.”

Riveting.

And while vice presidential debates can sometimes provide an amusing diversion for political junkies, there’s no evidence they have any impact on the election. A 2012 Gallup study found that “none of the eight vice presidential debates occurring from 1976 to 2008 appears to have meaningfully altered voter preferences.”

Still, Wednesday night’s debate offers some curiosity value, mainly due to the participation of the first woman of color to be part of a major-party ticket. A few things to watch for:

Will Harris come on strong or play it cool?

Before her mishandled candidacy flamed out early in the primary process, Harris produced one of the campaign’s more memorable moments with a debate scorching of Joe Biden over his past criticism of court-ordered busing to desegregate public school. This may have been a factor in President Trump’s bizarre characterization of her as a “mad woman,” a reminder that forceful female candidates of color are often subjected to a racist trope dating back to slavery that promotes the stereotype of the “angry black woman” as a way to “punish black women who violate the societal norms that encourage them to be passive, servile, nonthreatening, and unseen.”

Look for Harris to project passion and dismay tonight, but with a calm and even tone. That’s been her demeanor as the vice-presidential nominee, and the ticket’s steady rise in the polls suggest it’s working well.

Will Pence play pretend again?

In his 2016 debate with Democratic nominee Tim Kaine, Pence tried to gaslight America, repeatedly claiming that Trump had not said controversial things despite ample footage documenting that he had. For instance, Kaine cited Trump’s proposed Muslin ban, claiming accurately that Trump wanted to “keep them out if they’re Muslim.” Pence’s reply: “Absolutely false.”

Pence is a much more lucid speaker than Trump (again, a low bar) with excellent TV-ready body language – even vocal tone, calm facial expressions, practiced hand motions. But after four in-your-face years of the Trump presidency, voters are much more familiar with the facts of what the president has or hasn’t said and done. Pence will surely be pressed to discuss and defend the Trump record; it’s going to be hard for him to spin and lie his way through it as he did in 2016.

Will the candidates stick to their ticket’s game plan?

It’s the very nature of the vice presidency that you sublimate your own agenda to that of the president. We saw Biden stumble at times during the primary debates when he was pressed on Obama-era policies which he may not have agreed with at the time.

Harris will likely be pushed to explain some of the sharp differences between Biden and herself on issues like the Green New Deal (she’s for it, he isn’t) and abolishing the filibuster (ditto). Pence has worked painfully hard to erase any notion of disagreements between himself and Trump, even as he’s tip-toed around the president’s incendiary rhetoric on pandemic response as head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

Any clear difference between running mates that emerges tonight will make headlines. But the debate overall? My guess: completely forgotten within 48 hours of air.

Nonetheless, pop the corn and watch the thing at 9 p.m. on WBZ-TV and CBSN Boston, then join us for highlights and my analysis at 11 p.m. on WBZ News.

Jon Keller

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