US Vice President Mike Pence (L), US Democratic vice presidential nominee and Senator from California, Kamala Harris (R), moderator Washington Bureau Chief for USA Today Susan Page (C), participate in the vice presidential debate in Kingsbury Hall of the University of Utah October 7, 2020 in Salt Lake City, Utah.  JUSTIN SULLIVAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
US Vice President Mike Pence (L), US Democratic vice presidential nominee and Senator from California, Kamala Harris (R), moderator Washington Bureau Chief for USA Today Susan Page (C), participate in the vice presidential debate in Kingsbury Hall of the University of Utah October 7, 2020 in Salt Lake City, Utah.  (JUSTIN SULLIVAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Four Takeaways from Kamala Harris' Vice Presidential Debate Performance

Four Takeaways from Kamala Harris' Vice Presidential Debate Performance

California Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence (and one pesky fly) shared the vice presidential debate stage on Wednesday night in Salt Lake City, Utah — trading barbs in a 90-minute debate moderated by Susan Page of USA Today.

Harris made her debut on the national debate stage last year, during her run for the Democratic presidential nomination. But her task on Wednesday night was different, as she honed attacks on the Trump administration and sought to bridge divides between her own record and Joe Biden's platform.

Here are four takeaways from her performance:

Starting Out on Offense

Last week's presidential debate between President Trump and Biden began with questions about the pending confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett. But after the president contracted the coronavirus and was hospitalized over the weekend, there was little doubt that Wednesday night's debate would start with a focus on the pandemic.

Harris was ready. She tapped into the prosecutorial form that has garnered her acclaim during her time in the Senate, and calmly laid out the case against the Trump administration's response.

“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country," Harris said.

No Answer on 'Court Packing'

If Biden and Harris have made a decision on whether to increase the size of the Supreme Court if Democrats run the table, they're keeping it close to the vest. When Pence pressed for her position on "court packing," Harris veered uneasily between a history of judicial confirmations close to elections, an attack on Barrett's nomination process and an examination of Trump's lower court appointments.

Given that Biden was forced to perform similar rhetorical gymnastics on the same pommel horse last week, the campaign may want to articulate a position on the issue before the next presidential debate. Or not.

Standing Up for Her Record

Too often in her run for the Democratic nomination, Harris was caught between touting her lifelong experience as a prosecutor, and defending her role in a criminal justice system she acknowledged was full of systemic racism.

On Wednesday, Harris threaded the needle. She didn't shy from her law enforcement credentials — repeatedly remarking that she would "not be lectured" by Pence on issues of criminal justice.

"I am the only one on this stage who has personally prosecuted everything from child sexual assault to homicide," Harris said. "I am the only one on this stage who has prosecuted the big banks for taking advantage of homeowners. I am the only one on this stage who prosecuted for-profit colleges for taking advantage of our veterans."

And when Pence launched attacks on Harris' record as District Attorney of San Francisco and Attorney General of California ("you did nothing on criminal justice reform in California,") Harris pushed moderator Susan Page for a chance to respond.

"Having served as Attorney General of the state of California, the work that I did is a model of what our nation needs to do," she said.

Many Democrats in California would disagree with that — and have — but don't expect any to voice that now.

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Civility and Speaking Time

The night got off to a more civil start than last week's presidential debate, as Pence thanked Harris for her well wishes toward the president's health and offered her a moment of praise.

"I also want to congratulate you, as I did on that phone call, on the historic nature of your nomination," Pence said. "I never expected to be on that stage four years ago, so I know the feeling."

As the debate wore on, moderator Susan Page had increasing difficulty in cutting off Pence's answers at the time limit.

But Harris was able to successfully press for more time in response, and though final speaking time estimates vary, most show roughly equal time for the two candidates.