2020 Daily Trail Markers: Pence and Harris are set to face off in their only debate

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Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris are meeting on Wednesday evening in Salt Lake City, Utah, for the sole vice presidential debate, which will be moderated by USA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page. The coronavirus pandemic is likely to be the top issue of the evening, especially since President Trump tested positive for COVID-19 last week. Safety measures have been put in place for the debate at the University of Utah. Here’s more on what to watch for Wednesday night at 9 p.m by CBS News digital reporters Grace Segers and Audrey McNamara.

Pence participated in three separate 90-minute practice sessions ahead of the debate, according to a senior White House official. Trump campaign advisor and former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi – who has been helping Pence prepare for today’s debate by playing Harris – called the U.S. senator from California “a great debater” on Fox News, Wednesday. “I know Kamala. She’s smart. She’s articulate. She is very tough,” Bondi said. Asked how Pence plans to defend his record as leader of the White House coronavirus task force, Bondi said she had not spoken directly with the vice president about it, but added: “Off the top of my head, what I would say is, well, you’re the one that called us xenophobic for wanting to shut down China’s entry. You’re the one who wants open borders, so people can just flow into this country with diseases, with human trafficking, with drugs. So I mean, there’s plenty to come back.”

During a phone call with reporters ahead of the debate, Harris’ communications director Liz Allen said, “Senator Harris will be on stage with Mike Pence,” but added, “this debate is really about Trump’s failed leadership.” Members of Harris’ team signaled that the senator from California will lean in heavily on the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic as the vice president himself is the head of the White House COVID-19 task force, reports CBS News campaign reporter Tim Perry. Biden campaign senior adviser Symone Sanders did stress to reporters that they are expecting Pence to have a good night. Sanders said Pence has a “history” of being a successful debater and they do not see Wednesday night as an exception.

Members of Harris’ team were asked about any concerns they might have about any potential exposure to COVID-19 that Harris might face herself while on stage, especially as Harris is set to return to the campaign trail tomorrow with an appearance with her running mate Joe Biden in Arizona. Both Sanders and Allen said their team and Harris will continue to follow the guidelines set by the Cleveland Clinic and the Commission on Presidential Debates.

Pence has agreed to a plexiglass barrier on his side of the debate stage after earlier objections to the separation, Perry and CBS News campaign reporter Nicole Sganga report. The concession from representatives of the Trump-Pence campaign came after wrangling over whether plexiglass was needed on Pence’s side of the stage. Despite the extra COVID-19 safety measures in place, one doctor is questioning whether that will be enough as the virus outbreak at the White House continues to grow. “More layers of protection are so important,” Dr. Neeta Ogden said on CBSN Wednesday. “It’s not just Pence, it’s the team that he’s traveling with, it’s the exposure on a daily basis.”

The vice president’s physician announced that Pence took a PCR coronavirus test Tuesday afternoon that came back negative. And the White House said Pence and his wife both tested negative again Wednesday in Salt Lake City, where the debate is being held. But as Ogden points out, test results only reflect a specific moment in time and don’t guarantee an infection won’t develop later. “Just because he’s had a daily antigen test, intermittent PCR tests, is meaningless if he continues to interact with other people on his team or anybody else in the world — we don’t know what their COVID status is,” she said. Sganga and CBS News White House producer Sara Cooke report the Trump campaign has not learned of any additional positive coronavirus tests within their ranks since Friday night, when the president’s campaign manager Bill Stepien announced he tested positive for the virus. The president’s sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump and daughter-in-law Lara Trump tested negative on Monday for COVID-19.

FROM THE CANDIDATES

TRUMP-PENCE CAMPAIGN

Mr. Trump returned to the Oval Office on Wednesday, a White House spokesperson confirmed to CBS News White House producer Gaby Ake. White House deputy press secretary Brian Morgenstern told the TV pool the president was briefed on ongoing coronavirus stimulus talks and Hurricane Delta. Morgenstern told reporters on Wednesday that it’s not possible to uncover the source of Mr. Trump’s coronavirus infection, CBS News campaign reporter Nicole Sganga reports. “I understand people are very curious about that. I’m curious too. But that’s not really what contact tracing does. And the fact is, it could be any number of sources,” Morgenstern said. “It’s sort of an unknowable question as to where it entered the environment. Conley, the president’s physician, has repeatedly declined to provide specifics about the president’s lung condition or the last time Mr. Trump tested negative for the virus, citing federal privacy laws. On Monday afternoon, Conley released a new memo providing an update on Mr. Trump’s health. “The president this morning says ‘I feel great!'” wrote Conley, who has been leading the president’s care. “His physical exam and vital signs, including oxygen saturation and respiratory rate, all remain stable and in normal range.” Conley said Mr. Trump has been fever-free for four days and has not shown any symptoms for over 24 hours, adding that the president “has not needed nor received any supplemental oxygen since initial hospitalization.” He also said tests on Monday showed the president has “detectable levels” of coronavirus antibodies, an improvement from last Thursday, when antibodies were undetectable. Mr. Trump received a dose of an experimental antibody cocktail developed by the company Regeneron early on in his care, a drug that is not widely available.

BATTLEGROUNDS IN THE BATTLEGROUNDS

GEORGIA – *GWINETT COUNTY*

Gwinnett County, the second largest county in Georgia by population with more than 900,000 residents, has seen exponential growth in the past decade with the population growing by more than 100,000 and diversifying among racial and ethnic groups. Since 2010, the number of African-American, Asian, and Hispanic residents in the county has grown by tens of thousands, a demographic shift that one University of Georgia political science professor described as a “racial change” that is evident in the fact that you can drive through Gwinnett and “see signs in all languages.” Cathy Cox was the first woman to serve as Georgia’s Secretary of State when she took office in 1999. Cox told CBS News campaign reporter LaCrai Mitchell that if a Democrat wants to win the state of Georgia — which hasn’t happened in a presidential election since Bill Clinton won in 1992 — they must do well in Gwinnett County. “It has been a perennial Republican county until the last 10 or 15 years when the demographics have shifted radically as immigrant communities have moved into the county, grown businesses, and now the population is trending very heavily Democratic,” said Cox. “That shift has caught a lot of people by surprise and it now has become truly a solid Democratic voting base, when Republicans used to not have to bat an eye to count on that as part of their tally.” In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the suburban county outside of Atlanta by just 5%, but it was the first time in more than 20 years that a Democrat had won Gwinnett County in a presidential election — a sign that Cox said shows the area has become more of a Democratic safety net. “Democrats have always been able to count on Fulton County, DeKalb County, Richmond County in Augusta, Chatham County in Savannah, but now Gwinnett County is absolutely being added to that column.”

AD WARS

ON THE ATTACK

CBS News campaign reporter Tim Perry was first to report that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) War Room will be trolling the vice president in the hours leading up to the event with mobile billboards attacking him on his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic as attention focuses on Salt Lake City, Utah, where Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris will debate Wednesday night. “As chair of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Pence owns the administration’s failed response to the pandemic more than anyone except Trump himself.” Lily Adams, DNC War Room senior spokesperson and adviser, said in a statement to CBS News. “As cases continue to rise across the country and millions of families struggle to make ends meet, Americans are owed answers tonight on the administration’s failed coronavirus response.” To date, over 7 million Americans have contracted the virus and more than 210,000 Americans have died – statistics that will certainly be highlighted on the billboards, which will also feature audio of Mr. Trump naming Pence head of the task force during the onset of the pandemic. Another billboard highlights the Trump administration’s efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act and the protections afforded to people with preexisting conditions. A case on the nation’s health care law will be heard by the Supreme Court in the same week as the election in November. For more on this click here.

SOCIAL ETIQUETTE

With less than a month to go before November 3, Facebook announced additional measures it will take surrounding the 2020 election in what is expected to be an unprecedented election year. While the social network already had a plan in place to hit pause on new political and issue ads the week before the election, CBS News political unit associate producer Sarah Ewall-Wice reports it announced Thursday they will be removing all political, electoral and social issue ads when polls close on November 3, in an effort to reduce confusion and abuse. “Advertisers can expect this to last for a week, though this is subject to change,” said Sarah Schiff, product lead for political advertising at Facebook on a call with reporters. In a year where it could take time before multiple races are decided, Facebook is also working on labels and how they will be applied to election results. Once polls close, Facebook plans to run a notification at the top of Facebook and Instagram and apply labels to candidate posts that direct viewers to the network’s Voting Information Center on the vote counting process. Labels will include notifications that counting is still taking place and a winner has not yet been determined should a candidate or party declare victory in a race before it’s called by a major media outlet. Meanwhile, if a candidate or party contests a race already called by a major media outlet, Facebook will show the name of the declared winner and link to the Voting Information Center for more details in an effort to combat confusion. At the same time, Facebook said it will now remove calls for people to engage in poll watching when such calls use militarized language or suggest the goal is to “intimidate, exert control, or display power over election officials or voters.” This measure is in addition to steps already in place to remove calls for coordinated interference or bringing weapons to polling places. “What we’re trying to do now is get to this more implicit speech,” said vice president for content policy Monika Bickert, whose team will be making the enforcement decisions on the effort. Bickert noted that while this is a policy moving forward, Facebook will not be going back to retroactively remove old posts.

THE HORSE RACE

BIDEN V. TRUMP

A new batch of polling shows Biden leading Mr. Trump in several key battleground states, reports CBS News campaign reporter Adam Brewster. According to new Quinnipiac University polls, Biden is leading Mr. Trump 51% to 40% in Florida, Biden is up 54% to 41% in Pennsylvania and Biden is leading Mr. Trump 50% to 45% in Iowa. In Florida, Biden was up 3 points in Quinnipiac polling in early September and in Pennsylvania, Biden was up 8 points in early September. It was the first Quinnipiac poll to survey likely voters in Iowa. The poll also showed Iowa Democratic Senate candidate Theresa Greenfield leading Republican incumbent Joni Ernst 50% to 45%. Separately, in Wisconsin, a new Marquette University Law School poll showed Biden leading Trump 46% to 41% among likely voters. The Marquette poll also found that 54% of Wisconsinites are planning to vote in-person on Election Day, up from 50% back in late August and early September. Biden still holds leads among voters planning to vote absentee, either by mail or in-person, and Trump leads among voters who plan to go to the polls on Election Day. The Marquette poll also found that 72% of respondents support a statewide mask order, which Democratic Governor Tony Evers recently extended, as the state faces a major COVID-19 outbreak. A conservative legal group challenged that order and Republicans in the state legislature filed a brief supporting that challenge, saying Evers didn’t have the power to do so.

STATE-BY-STATE

FLORIDA

It’s been three years since Hurricane Maria ravaged the island of Puerto Rico, leaving thousands dead and others displaced, seeking shelter in cities like Orlando, Florida. Today, more than a million Puerto Ricans live in Florida, many of them in Kissimmee, where one of the key issues in the 2020 election will be Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts. CBS News LaCrai Mitchell reports that 27 days from the presidential election, Puerto Rican communities are organizing in Florida as both presidential candidates are actively appealing to this voting bloc. In September, just a few days after the Biden-Harris campaign announced a proposal to provide more infrastructure funding to help Puerto Rico rebuild, Mr. Trump announced nearly $13 billion would go to the island for recovery efforts three years after the storm hit. But many feel that this gesture is too little, too late. “I’m voting for Biden. Is he perfect? No, he’s not. But I’m voting for Biden because we cannot stand another four years of what we got,” said Frank Rivera, one of many volunteers who has helped Puerto Rican families settle in Central Florida. “You cannot be humiliated, you cannot be put down by the administration and then turn around and give us $13 billion and think that that is enough to wipe everything clean.” Read the full story here.

OHIO

The Franklin County Board of Elections announced Tuesday evening that some voters in the county received incorrect ballots via mail, reports CBS News campaign reporter Jack Turman. In an updated statement on Wednesday, the board, who is working with the software vendor Bluecrest and the Ohio Secretary of State’s office to correct the issue, said they are still analyzing how many voters received incorrect ballots. “The Board tested the system that was responsible for incorrect ballots,” the board added in a statement. “The system is now working as intended. Voters that received the wrong ballot will be issued a new correct replacement ballot. That ballot will be mailed out in the coming days.”

PENNSYLVANIA

If the presidential race is close in Pennsylvania, it could take days, but not weeks, to know who won, the state’s top elections official said. “Every time we’ve had a close race, it sometimes takes days until you know who the winner is,” Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar said on a press call today. “But I think the overwhelming majority of ballots cast in person and cast by mail will be able to be counted in a matter of days, not a matter of weeks.” Boockvar and local elections officials have long been asking to be allowed to begin pre-canvassing mail ballots ahead of Election Day, but the governor and state legislature haven’t come to an agreement on legislation that would do so, reports CBS News campaign reporter Zak Hudak. The state Supreme Court last month also extended the deadline for mail ballots to arrive at elections offices to three days after the election, allowing for further delays. Official results aren’t due until 20 days after the election. Boockvar also said nearly 9 million Pennsylvanians have registered to vote in the state’s general election, a number her office believes to be a record. Democrats still vastly outnumber Republicans here, but by about 200,000 fewer registered voters than in 2016. Boockvar also said over 60 of the state’s 67 counties have already begun mailing mail-in ballots or will in the coming days. Over 92,000 ballots have already been returned. About three dozen counties are using drop boxes for some mail ballots returns, but most have five or less, Boockvar said. About a half dozen have opened or plan to open satellite election offices where voters can register, apply for a mail ballot, fill it out and return it in a single trip.

TEXAS

The Texas Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected a challenge from Republican leaders in the state seeking to strike down an extended early voting period, reports CBS News campaign reporter Adam Brewster. In July, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced there would be an extra 6 days of early voting in Texas and allowed people to hand deliver mail ballots before Election Day. Abbott had resisted calls to expand voting by mail access, but instead offered the extra 6 days of early voting. The Texas Supreme Court said Republicans challenged the decision too late and noted that the election is already happening. Early voting is set to begin in Texas on October 13. According to CBS News data, 61% of likely voters in Texas plan to vote early in person.

VOTING INTEGRITY

EARLY VOTING

The combination of intense interest in the 2020 presidential election with a deadly pandemic is spurring sky-high rates of early voting. That’s going to have an impact on the way election night plays out this year, but it won’t affect the outcome reports CBS News Election & Survey Unit’s Kabir Khanna. So far, over 5 million voters have already cast their ballots, and many more intend to do so in the coming weeks. Some will vote by mail, while others will do so in person at early voting centers. (Check out ways of voting in your state here.) We’ve been asking voters in battleground states how they would prefer to vote this year. In six competitive states that CBS has polled over the past 3 weeks, each state, a sizable segment of likely voters tell us they would prefer to vote by mail or in person — before Election Day, which falls on November 3. In states with strong track records of early voting — like Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas — large majorities prefer to vote by mail or early in person, ranging from 68% to 80%. Even in Pennsylvania, where early voting has been much less common, 36% want to vote by mail, with a narrower 57% majority saying they would like to vote in person on Election Day.

In addition to the sheer magnitude of early voting this year, there’s an interesting pattern emerging: Democrats look much likelier to vote early, particularly by mail, than Republicans do. This pattern appears in survey data and actual ballot returns. In North Carolina, for instance, registered Democrats are returning mail ballots at substantially higher rates than registered Republicans are. In fact, most of the ballots returned in the state so far are from Democrats. By contrast, Republican voters are much likelier to express a preference for voting in person on Election Day. This difference is partly attributable to cues from party leaders, like Mr. Trump’s baseless claims that mail voting is fraudulent. Despite the president’s rhetoric, around nine in 10 Republicans who usually vote by mail want to do so again (much as Mr. Trump does himself). While most Trump voters prefer to vote as they usually do, many Biden voters want to change how they vote this year.

In fact, it’s Democrats who are driving the partisan gaps in vote method by switching from Election Day to early voting. Many Biden voters say they usually vote in person on Election Day but fewer want to do so this year. The differences here are substantially larger than they are among Trump voters. In Pennsylvania, for example, just 35% say they prefer to vote on Election Day this year, compared to 82% who say they usually vote that way. In four of the five other states, the percentage for “this year” is less than half the “usually” percentage. What this all means for election night is that is that we’re likely to see substantial differences in the early and Election-Day vote. Partisan splits may be even larger in states where early voting is historically less common, like Ohio and Pennsylvania. In states that process early ballots before election night and therefore report their results more quickly on election night — like Florida and North Carolina — Biden may appear to do better in the early returns. In states like Pennsylvania — where many counties will not even report mail votes on election night — Trump may appear to be ahead as counties begin releasing results.

Fortunately, we’ll be tracking all of this data at the CBS News Decision Desk. Rather than rely solely on the tabulated votes at any given point in the night, our models estimate where the race will end up when all the votes are in. We’ll be estimating the total number of early ballots and outstanding ballots in each state, and our exit polls will include interviews at early vote centers, as well as phone interviews with voters who cast mail ballots. But we will not project a winner in a state until we’re confident the trailing candidate won’t catch up even after all ballots — whether cast in person or by mail, early or on Election Day — are counted.

CONGRESSIONAL COVERAGE

IN THE SENATE

NORTH CAROLINA

The Army Reserve confirmed to CBS News Wednesday that it is investigating the matters involving Lieutenant Colonel James “Cal” Cunningham, reports CBS News political unit associate producer Eleanor Watson. On Friday, Cunningham’s campaign confirmed the authenticity of flirtatious text messages between Cunningham and a political strategist, and since then, the AP has uncovered more text messages that show the relationship was recent and included intimate encounters. In his first interview since news of the text broke last Friday, Cunningham told CBS affiliate WNCN that he has hurt his family and disappointed his supporters, but the Senate race is about issues affecting North Carolinians, not his personal life, and wouldn’t answer questions about his relationship. He said he will cooperate with the Army Reserve investigation and answer any questions they might have. On the other side, incumbent Republican Senator Thom Tillis, who received a positive COVID-19 test on Friday, told WRAL he “made a mistake taking off mask inside the White House.” Tillis attended the nomination ceremony of Judge Amy Coney Barrett on September 26, and while he wore a mask outside, he took it off at the indoor reception.

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