WASHINGTON — The third night of the Republican National Convention is shaping up to be the most traditional convention night so far this week, with a half-dozen Republican elected officials slated to speak ahead of a keynote by Vice President Mike Pence that will highlight the Trump administration's successes.
It is also the second-to-last night for Republicans to do two things they still need to do this week: Lay out an agenda for President Donald Trump, should he win reelection in November, and convince voters Trump has a strategy, if not a plan, to contain the coronavirus.
The virus that Trump downplayed and brushed off earlier this year has now killed nearly 180,000 Americans, and it remains Trump's biggest political vulnerability this fall. But if there's anyone who can help Trump repair some of the political damage this has done, it's Pence, who leads the White House coronavirus task force.
Wednesday night will feature more Republican rising stars than any night so far this week. It's worth watching how they position themselves vis-a-vis Trump and the party at large.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem is an ardent Trump supporter who made national news this summer for her vocal opposition to mask mandates to protect people from coronavirus. It's part of Noem's overall hands-off approach to the deadly pandemic. In July, she attended a Trump event at Mount Rushmore with more than 5,000 people and no social distancing or mask rules.
Noem also encouraged hundreds of thousands of people to attend the annual Sturgis, South Dakota, motorcycle rally earlier this month, where there was no social distancing and barely any masks. Public health experts say clusters of coronavirus infections connected to the rally have already popped up in at least eight states.
Another rising star speaking on Wednesday is Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, the first female combat veteran elected to the Senate. Ernst is a staunch Trump defender, but she has also carved out a role for herself as a vocal advocate for victims of sexual abuse in the military.
This year, Ernst is in a surprisingly competitive race for reelection, with the polling average in a statistical dead heat against Democrat Theresa Greenfield. Ernst's speech on Wednesday is both a chance for her to introduce herself to a national audience as a veteran on a night whose theme is "Land of Heroes" and the biggest stage she'll have this year for her Senate race.
Noem and Ernst are the standout younger speakers to watch Wednesday, but they aren't the only ones. Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee will also speak, as will three Trump-aligned House members: Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas, and Reps. Elise Stefanik and Lee Zeldin, both of New York.
The theme of how the Trump administration has helped working women is also shaping up to be a big one on Wednesday. In addition to speakers such as Noem, Ernst and Stefanik, the convention will feature two high-profile Trump White House aides.
Departing counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway is one of the few senior White House employees who has been with Trump since his 2016 campaign, so her announcement last Sunday that she would be leaving at the end of the month to focus more on her family caught Washington by surprise.
For the past four years, Conway has consistently painted Trump as an ally of working women, dismissing the president's decades-long history of sexist comments and the allegations of sexual harassment and abuse leveled against him by multiple women.
Expect to hear this argument again on Wednesday from Conway, but this time, echoed by White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, an unexpected addition to the speakers list.
McEnany says she is doing the speech in her personal capacity, and not as a White House staffer, which would violate Hatch Act provisions. According to organizers, McEnany will share her personal story of having had a prophylactic double mastectomy after learning that she carried a gene closely associated with breast cancer. She will also discuss being a new mother working in the White House.
In addition to McEnany and Conway, Trump's daughter-in-law Lara Trump is also on the Wednesday roster. Lara Trump emerged in 2016 as an unexpectedly effective surrogate for her father-in-law, and she has worked on Trump's reelection campaign ever since he took office. Like McEnany and Conway, Lara Trump is a working mom, so expect that thread to carry through to her speech.
Pence will reprise the traditional role of vice presidents at nominating conventions on Wednesday and deliver the keynote speech, where he is expected to contrast the Trump administration's record with that of Trump's opponent, the Democratic nominee and former vice president Joe Biden.
As chairman of the president's coronavirus task force, Pence is also expected to address the pandemic and defend the administration's response. He will also likely touch on Hurricane Laura, a Category 4 storm which is slated to smash into the Louisiana and Texas Gulf Coast on Wednesday night and Thursday morning.
The last subject Pence is likely to address are the racial justice protests that have rocked U.S. cities this summer, some of which have turned violent. Kenosha, Wisconsin, is the most recent example, as demonstrators have taken to the streets to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man who was shot in the back seven times by police last week. In response to the protests, armed militia members have appeared in Kenosha vowing to "defend" businesses. One of these people was arrested Wednesday for a double homicide Tuesday night.
Trump has taken a very hostile approach to the Black Lives Matter protests, referring to demonstrators as "thugs" and "criminals," while celebrating police. It will be interesting to see how Pence frames both the protests and the killings of Black people by police.
Pence will be speaking from historic Fort McHenry near Baltimore. Organizers said his speech will be attended by more than 100 people, many of them military veterans. Fort McHenry is a national park, which has sparked controversy because it represents another taxpayer-funded location that's being used as a political prop this year by the Trump campaign.
Convention coverage on cable news channels and CNBC.com will begin at 8:30 p.m. ET. Coverage on network prime time begins at 10 p.m.