INDIANAPOLIS – There was one key moment during the 2016 vice presidential debate between Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and Democrat U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine. Pence was pressed on why he backed a ban on Syrian refugees.

“I have no higher priority than the safety and security of the people of my state. So you bet I suspended that program,” Pence responded to Kaine. “And I stand by that decision. And if I’m vice president of the United States or Donald Trump is president, we’re going to put the safety and security of the American people first. Donald Trump has called for extreme vetting for people coming into this country so that we don’t bring people into the United States who are hostile to our Bill of Rights freedoms, who are hostile to the American way of life.”

It led many observers to say that Pence won that debate, or at least held his own. And don’t forget, this came during Donald Trump’s pre-Comey meltdown period when most saw Pence as auditioning for a Fox News show and 2020.

When Joe Biden picked U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris for his ticket on Tuesday, setting up what could be an out-sized debate sequence, given the pandemic has robbed us of conventions and rallies, the national pundits suggested Sen. Harris would, as the New York Times’s Frank Bruni put it, “have him for breakfast.” Republican strategist Steve Schmidt observed, “I think Mike Pence is going to have a very, very difficult time in the vice presidential debate. Frankly, intellectually, from an eloquence and articulation perspective, they’re not in the same league with each other.”

Pence’s response to Kaine is relevant and demonstrative on two levels today. First, given a thorny issue, Pence’s push back was effective. Second, times have changed dramatically. Saying the “safety and security of the American people” stood above anything else leaves the vice president open to incoming on an array of Trumpian faux pas, ranging from the pandemic that has claimed 165,000 American lives, to Trump’s dealing with North Korean despot Kim Jong Un.

In 2016, Pence was selling the opportunity of Trump to many undecided voters who were sick and tired of the Clintons and Bushes, who saw America changing demographically from white and heterosexual to brown and polysexual, and who wondered why their adult offspring were still living in their basements.

Since Trump handed Pence the pandemic portfolio, Pence spent much of April and May urging states to reopen in what now appears to be premature fashion. He’s spent July and August telling parents and local school officials that it was safe to return to in-person classes.

Both are problematic. In 2016, Pence was selling the opportunity of Donald Trump. This fall, this election is not only a referendum on Trump, but also on who can extract American from the pandemic that is wreaking epic havoc on most aspects of life. As of last Friday, Trump’s strategy seemed to be this, in his own words: “It’s going away. It’ll go away. Things go away. No question in my mind that it will go away.”

When Pence experienced his first debate seeking executive office in 2012 against Democrat John Gregg, he had a 14% lead in the Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll, he led 13% among women and he faced an underdog opponent needing to make headlines.

In his 2016 debate with Sen. Kaine, Pence was in a completely different situation, this time on a national stage. He played a subservient role to Trump, who just went through one of the worst weeks a presidential nominee has ever experienced, erratically clinging to a verbal war with a beauty queen and ending by suggesting his opponent had been unfaithful to her husband. Pence had a clear mission: Steady the ticket, defend the boss, make the case against Hillary Clinton and set the stage for the second Clinton/Trump encounter in St. Louis (still to come was the “Access Hollywood” audio).

Pence always fashioned himself as a quality debater and communicator. When he first approached legendary GOP chairman Keith Bulen about running for Congress in 1988, he mentioned he was a good public speaker. Bulen responded, “What the hell does that have to do with anything?”

During his 2012 debate with Gregg, the Democrat brought up Pence’s committee attendance rate in Congress. “John, you’re not sounding much like yourself these days,” Pence responded, noting that he had a “95% attendance record.” Pence quickly pivoted to attack, noting that in five of the six years when Gregg was Indiana House speaker, the state ran deficits. “Just talking about bipartisanship is not going to be good enough,” Pence said. “It’s about having a plan.”

The final Pence/Gregg showdown occurred a day after Indiana Republican Senate nominee Richard Mourdock made one of the epic blunders in the 2012 cycle with his controversial debate comment about rape and God. Thus the final Pence/Gregg debate was overshadowed by a national media firestorm.

Pence defended Mourdock, saying, “I’m pleased that Richard Mourdock clarified his comments and apologized, and I think it’s time to move on,” but he would not answer questions about what part of Mourdock’s statement he disagreed with or what he needed to apologize for.

The Pence of 2012 was a steady performer on the debate stage. He was rarely rattled. He made not one Quaylesque faux pas. He stayed on message, delivered his talking points and defended his ticket.

On Oct. 7, Pence will face Sen. Harris at the University of Utah. What he’ll face in Harris is a former district attorney who led the Democratic charge against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and, earlier this year, grilled Attorney General William Barr, pressing over the “simple question” of whether President Trump or anyone in the White House “asked or suggested you open an investigation of anyone” connected with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. “Yes or no, please sir. Seems you’d remember something like that,” she said.

“I’m trying to grapple with the word ‘suggest,’” Barr responded.

“Perhaps they suggested ... hinted ... inferred,” Harris said, before adding, “You don’t know.”

In selecting Harris, Biden said Tuesday, “These aren’t normal times. For the first time in our history, we’re facing three historic crises – all at the same time. We’re facing the worst pandemic in 100 years. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The most powerful calls for racial justice in a generation. And we have a president who has both failed to lead on the virus, costing lives and decimating our economy, and fanned the flames of hate and division. I need someone working alongside me who is smart, tough, and ready to lead. Kamala is that person.”

Sen. Harris, 55, is the first Black woman to be nominated for vice president. She has Indian and Jamaican heritage.

In the first Democratic debate last summer, Harris attacked Biden. “It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country,” Harris said. At a presser earlier this summer on the veepstakes, Biden was photographed with notes that included, “Don’t hold grudges.”

Biden is hoping that Harris will train her prosecutorial firepower on Pence during the scheduled Oct. 7 vice presidential debate. What Pence will find is the heir to national Democratic power, considering many expect Biden to serve just one term ... if ... he can defeat President Trump. Pence will find in Harris the prosecutor who became California’s first female attorney general, and then steered her way to the state’s junior Senate seat. She arrived in Washington at the same time as Donald Trump, and like Barack Obama, with the promise of being a national player.

Appearing in Arizona as the pick was announced, Pence told supporters, “As you all know, Joe Biden and the Democratic Party have been overtaken by the radical left. So given their promises of higher taxes, open borders, socialized medicine, and abortion on demand, it’s no surprise that he chose Sen. Harris. So my message to the Democratic nominee for vice president: Congratulations. I’ll see you in Salt Lake City.”