Opinion: Kamala Harris shows the nation why she is the best woman for the VP job

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During the vice presidential debate on Wednesday night, Kamala Harris did exactly what she needed to do.

After Donald Trump's disgraceful behavior during the first presidential debate, many Americans were anxiously waiting to see how the vice presidential debate between Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence would play out.

Historically, vice presidential debates are of little consequence for a presidential race.

But these debates can produce some memorable moments, like the haymaker Democratic vice presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen landed in his 1988 debate with Dan Quayle. Quayle had compared himself during the debate to President John F. Kennedy. Bentsen responded: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." 

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As we saw in 2012, the vice presidential debates can also help stabilize a race. Joe Biden decisively bested Paul Ryan in their 2012 debate, giving the Obama-Biden ticket a much-needed boost after President Barack Obama's rough first debate.

But rarely do they change the course of an election because, at the end of the day, voters are voting for who's at the top of the ticket.

While that's true of the debate on Wednesday night, this one also seemed to be more consequential than previous VP faceoffs.

Biden himself has said he is a transitional candidate. By laying that out, Biden has placed a brighter spotlight on Harris than most vice presidential candidates experience. You can see how much significance her selection as VP holds by the way she has been amplified by the campaign: How many presidential running mates get their own campaign merchandise collections and paid TV ads featuring just them? 

So, because of Biden's self-described role as a transitional candidate, in addition to Harris being the first Black woman and first Asian American on a major party presidential ticket, the VP debate spotlight shone a much brighter light on Harris than it historically has on other vice presidential candidates.

Pence too was under a brighter spotlight, but for much different reasons. There is no more prominent issue faced by America than the deadly coronavirus. It has affected every aspect of voters' lives, and has even reached deep into the West Wing.

Pence has been the point person for the White House's coronavirus task force and, next to Trump, the face of its failed response to a virus that's killed over 211,000 in America while countries with fewer resources got their outbreaks under control.

First off, the debate was not the wrestling match that the presidential debate was, so both sides had opportunities to articulate their arguments, though Pence's continued interruptions of both Harris and moderator Susan Page did not go unnoticed.

And on Wednesday night, Harris did exactly what she needed to do. From the opening minutes, she held the Trump administration to account for its catastrophic failure on the coronavirus. For Trump's racism, sexism, selfishness, and erratic nature. For his self-dealing and open hostility toward transparency. 

Harris not only fulfilled the traditional VP duty of attack dog — she also clearly laid out the vision for a Biden-Harris administration, something that wasn't able to break through the circus that was the first presidential debate.

And don't just take my word for it. According to CNN's instant poll of registered voters on Wednesday night, 59% of voters said Harris won the debate, while only 38% said Pence won. Notably, Harris beat Pence with men 48% to 46%, and she absolutely creamed him with women, who said the senator from California won by a whopping 39 points. 

Now at the end of the day, probably very few undecided voters were persuaded by this debate. There was very little new information injected into the national political dialogue, but Harris clearly demonstrated a strong command of the issues and showed the country why Joe Biden selected her as his running mate.

Finally, with the announcement that the next presidential debate would go virtual and Trump claiming he won't participate in it, Wednesday night's VP debate might have been the last prime-time, high-viewership opportunity for the campaigns to make impressions on undecided voters — which makes Harris' impressive debate performance all the more important.

Jim Messina is CEO of The Messina Group and chief strategist for American Bridge 21st Century. He was formerly White House deputy chief of staff under President Obama, and campaign manager for the president's 2012 reelection campaign.

Ty Matsdorf is longtime Democratic strategist, having held top positions on campaigns and in government before joining The Messina Group as a senior vice president.