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SALT LAKE CITY — As Vice President Mike Pence arrived in Salt Lake City Monday evening for the upcoming debate with California Sen. Kamala Harris — the Democratic nominee for vice president who’s already here — President Donald Trump is leading in a new poll among Utah voters who’ve made up their minds about the election.
Before Pence boarded Air Force Two for Salt Lake City, he told reporters the president “told me to head to Utah,” to get ready for Wednesday’s vice presidential debate. Trump returned to the White House Monday following three days of treatment at the Walter Reed Medical Center for COVID-19.
“We’re looking very much forward to the vice presidential debate,” Pence said. “The stakes in this election have never been higher, the choice has never been clearer, and I look forward to the opportunity to take our case to the American people for four more years for President Donald Trump in the White House.“
He also expressed gratitude for the support shown the president since his diagnosis, calling it “emblematic of the love and the care and the compassion the American people have shown all of those that have been impacted by the coronavirus from the very beginning of this pandemic.”
Pence and his family wore masks as they boarded the plane. He was greeted in Salt Lake City by Gov. Gary Herbert and first lady Jeanette Herbert, and 4th Congressional District GOP candidate Burgess Owens. En route to the Hotel Monaco, the vice president’s motorcade passed three people with Biden signs and several dozen waving signs for Trump.
The Republican president is the “definite” choice of 44% of likely Utah voters, compared to 36% who say they are definitely voting for former Vice President Joe Biden in the poll conducted by Y2 Analytics. There were 1,214 likely voters polled Sept. 26-Oct 4 and the results have a margin or error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points,
But another 4% of those polled said Trump is their pick but they could still change their minds, while an additional 2% said they’d vote for the president if they “had to choose.” In Biden’s case, 2% said they might switch their vote and 1% said they’d back the Democrat if they “had to choose.”
A total of 9% of likely voters in the poll released Monday expressed degrees of support for other, unspecified candidates, while 1% were undecided and 1% said they were not planning on voting in the November presidential election.
Pence and Harris are set to take the debate stage at the University of Utah’s Kingsbury Hall at 7 p.m. Wednesday before a limited live audience. There has been talk this could be the final debate before the election because of Trump’s hospitalization for the virus, but his campaign has suggested the president will debate on Oct. 15.
Jason Perry, U. vice president of government relations and chairman of the campus’ debate steering committee, said excitement is building for the 90-minute debate now just days away. He said the Commission on Presidential Debates is now saying it will be the most-watched vice presidential debate in history.
“Everything is becoming very real. Press is arriving today,” Perry said, including from the BBC and other foreign outlets. “Students are finding out today if they are going to be getting one of those winning tickets to be able to watch the debate.”
On Facebook Live Monday, U. President Ruth Watkins drew the names of 60 students and five alternates who hopefully will be able to sit inside Kingsbury Hall. The hall, which can seat nearly 2,000, is expected to be largely empty because of precautions being taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Even before the president tested positive for the deadly virus and was hospitalized, the U. had put in place protocols that include requiring coronavirus tests for everyone entering Kingsbury Hall or any part of the campus that’s been secured for the event, along with wearing face masks and social distancing.
“We’ve been planning for implications of COVID-19 from the beginning,” Perry said.
The vice presidential candidates will be separated by a plexiglass barrier, as well as being seated 12 feet, 3 inches apart, further than initially planned. The changes were sought by Harris, and Politico quoted a Pence spokeswoman, Katie Miller, as saying, “If Sen. Harris wants to use a fortress around herself, have at it.”
Other announcements from the presidential debate commission Monday include that there will not be a handshake or other physical greeting between the candidates. nor will they make any opening or closing statements. They will not wear masks during the debate, but anyone in the audience who doesn’t will be removed.
The poll found that 52% of likely voters in Utah have a favorable opinion of Pence, compared to 38% who have a favorable view of Harris. The senator arrived Friday and toured This is the Place Heritage Park on Saturday and visited the Utah Capitol Sunday, former Democratic state Senate leader Scott Howell said.
Howell, a surrogate for the Biden campaign, said Harris, who was a contender for the 2020 presidential nomination, worked out on the Capitol steps before returning to debate preparations at an undisclosed location in Salt Lake City.
Joining her is another former Democratic presidential candidate, Pete Buttigieg, Howell said. Buttigieg, who served as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is portraying Pence, a former Indiana governor, in mock debates with Harris on what Howell described as a replica of the Kingsbury Hall stage.
“I’ll bet she’s eight to 10 hours of pure prep” a day, he said. “She’s studious.”
Utah GOP Chairman Derek Brown said Pence will also be focused on getting ready for the debate.
“It makes good sense for the vice president to arrive in Utah a few days before the debate, to acclimate, and conduct his debate preparations here. His team is taking extensive health precautions and has limited his events before the debate on Wednesday,” Brown said.
The state Republican Party leader added, “We look forward to showcasing Utah to the country, a robust debate on the issues, and an opportunity for the country to hear the vice president articulate a positive vision for the country.”
The poll also found that more than half of likely voters, 52%, had a favorable view of Trump, while 40% had a favorable view of Biden. The poll was paid for by Y2 Analytics with the intention of releasing the results publicly. It was not sponsored by any candidate or organization.
Quin Monson, a founding partner of Y2 Analytics, said the biggest story of the poll “is that Trump is underperforming in Utah relative to where you would expect a Republican nominee for president to be,” while Biden is as high as 40% support.
Utah, a state that has not voted for a Democrat for president since 1964, gave Trump a victory in 2016 with just 45.5% of the vote. Last month, a Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll showed Trump was leading Biden, 53% to 35%.
Monson said he doesn’t believe the president’s health crisis, which began as the poll was wrapping up in the field, would have changed the findings of the Y2 Analytics poll, including the opinions Utah voters have of Pence and Harris.
“I think it’s too early to know,” the pollster said. “Vice presidential choices, like vice presidential debates, are generally not that consequential unless there’s a good reason. There’s a possibility that might become more important, but it hasn’t yet, until we have more certain news about what’s going on.”