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Attendees watch Mike Pence and Kamala Harris during a vice-presidential debate watch party hosted by the Woman’s National Democratic Club in Washington on Oct. 7, 2020.

ANNA MONEYMAKER/The New York Times News Service

For 90 minutes on Wednesday night, the United States and the world experienced a reprieve from the political chaos and rancour of the past four years as vice-presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Mike Pence debated each other for the first time.

It made it hard not to wish that these two politicians were leading their respective Democratic and Republican presidential tickets, rather than having to play the loyal subordinates to a 77-year-old Joe Biden, who has seen better days, and a 74-year-old Donald Trump, who makes each new dawn feel like the end of days.

The Harris-Pence encounter served as a reminder that the Trump administration is an aberration and that, though Mr. Pence may be its nominal second-in-command, he is its steadiest hand. He can never live down his complacency in the face of Mr. Trump’s behaviour. But things would probably be a lot worse without him around.

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Mr. Pence is more moderate than he lets on. As Indiana governor in 2015, he signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, preventing the state from infringing on the right of citizens to practise their faith. The law created a national uproar, as critics claimed it would allow business owners such as caterers to discriminate against gay couples. Mr. Pence quickly got behind an amendment to the law that explicitly prohibited using religion as a pretense for discriminating against LGBQT people.

Ms. Harris is also a shapeshifter when she needs to be. Despite embracing policies popular with her party’s left wing as a presidential candidate – she bowed out before the Iowa caucuses – she slips in and out her progressive persona with ease. Witness how she ceased calling for a ban on hydraulic fracturing after becoming Mr. Biden’s running mate. “Joe Biden will not ban fracking,” she kept insisting during the debate, in a way that suggested to progressive voters that she did not necessarily agree with his position.

There may have been a reason for that. Only seconds later, congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a champion of the progressive left, tweeted: “Fracking is bad, actually.”

Mr. Pence and Ms. Harris are both extremely skilled politicians, though stylistically opposite ones. Both are looking beyond the November vote to their own presumed presidential candidacies in 2024, though one of them may not have to wait that long to reach the Oval Office. As running mates to the oldest presidential contenders ever, American voters look at them differently than past vice-presidential candidates.

That made Wednesday’s debate especially important. It was reassuringly civil, compared with the previous week’s disgraceful presidential debate. During the eight days that separated the two events, Mr. Trump had tested positive for COVID-19, been admitted to the hospital, received a cocktail of drugs and oxygen, returned to the White House while still likely contagious and vowed to debate Mr. Biden in person again next week.

The needless and exhausting drama of the past week alone, much less the past four years, should be a reminder to any American voters still hesitating that it is time to cancel the Trump reality show. The President’s COVID-19 diagnosis was entirely avoidable, epitomizing the recklessness with which he conducts his affairs and those of the country he leads. Neither fate nor bad luck were to blame for his illness; he was.

Thankfully, his odds of re-election now appear too long for even him to overcome. That made Ms. Harris the more interesting of the two vice-presidential candidates to watch on Wednesday night. She was under greater scrutiny than Mr. Pence. As the first Black woman on a presidential ticket, she also faced greater pressure to perform than the sitting vice-president. She had to be more careful about being perceived as too aggressive, which meant she could not ignore the moderator’s pleas to respect time limits the way Mr. Pence did. In the end, it worked in her favour.

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Yes, many of her answers were vague or evasive, such as when she was asked whether she and Mr. Biden supported Democratic calls to expand the size of the Supreme Court if the Senate votes to confirm Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the court before a Biden administration takes over in January.

She also avoided explaining her vote in January against the Canada-United States-Mexico trade agreement, as a member of the Senate budget committee. She claimed then that the accord did not go far enough to protect the environment, a popular position in California, but a tougher sell in Midwestern states Mr. Biden needs to carry to win the White House. Her opposition to CUSMA illustrated her tendency to grandstand.

Still, she is the most engaging and impressive vice-presidential candidate in memory. After the debate, no American voter need worry about whether she is up to the top job.

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