The vice-presidential debate Tuesday night will give two of America's most mild-mannered political figures a rare opportunity to shine and serve as character witnesses for their deeply unpopular celebrity nominees.
Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence, two politicians in their late 50s, each with gubernatorial and congressional experience, are set to face off for 90 minutes at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia, with the presidential race showing signs of having shifted toward Hillary Clinton since she and Donald Trump faced off last week.
While the conversation is expected to center on the fierce battle between Clinton and Trump, the political records of the two vice-presidential contenders are also likely to come under scrutiny.
Here are six things to know before the showdown, which starts at 9 p.m. ET.
1. Pence faces the bigger test.
Throughout the campaign, Pence, the Indiana governor, has served as the liaison between Trump and the jittery GOP establishment, while Kaine, a Virginia senator, has acted as Clinton's affable attack dog. On Tuesday night, both will be called upon to defend not only their own records, but the records at the top of their tickets. Pence in particular will be expected to address new controversies related to Trump's tax returns and his foundation, which was ordered to stop accepting donations in New York by the state attorney general on Monday.
In recent weeks, both men have come up against their running mates’ more controversial comments. During an appearance on ABC's This Week last month, Kaine said that he would not have used the word “irredeemable” to describe some Trump supporters, as Clinton did at a fundraiser. Pence has struggled to find the balance between echoing Trump's rhetoric and distancing himself from his controversies. Though Trump has refused to release his tax returns, Pence released his. But Pence has also defended Trump's praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump's unsubstantiated claim that Clinton's 2008 campaign started the false rumor that President Barack Obama wasn't born in America.
“I don't know if he thinks a lot of what Trump is saying makes any sense,” Vice President Joe Biden said about Pence in a CNN interview that aired Tuesday. “What a hell of a way to make a living, to get up every morning and support someone you don't agree with. Maybe he does.”
Pence will also have to make up for Trump's performance last week. “There’s no burden on Kaine, as there was on Biden in 2012, to begin to redeem Obama’s performance in the first debate,” said Bob Shrum, a Democratic strategist who advised John Kerry and Al Gore when they ran for president.
2. Preparation is key.
Unlike Trump, both Kaine and Pence have made a point of emphasizing how much they’ve prepared for Tuesday night’s debate. In response to questions about Clinton’s near-collapse on Sept. 11, Kaine said that he was reading thick policy briefings when he learned about the incident. Marc Lotter, a spokesman for Pence, said Pence and his advisers have been preparing for the debate since he accepted the vice-presidential nomination. Both candidates have held mock debates.
Neither is likely to come off as unprepared as Trump did during the first presidential debate, but the winner of the vice-presidential debate may be the man who prepares the best one-liners. Senator Lloyd Bentsen came up with his legendary 1988 vice-presidential debate put down (“You’re no Jack Kennedy”) after studying remarks his opponent, Senator Dan Quayle, made in the weeks leading up to the debate, according to Ron Klain, a Democratic strategist who worked with the campaign.
3. Nice guys can finish last.
While political-science research shows that running mates rarely affect the outcome of a race, the vice-presidential debate will shape how Kaine and Pence are perceived by the American public. “The debate is going to be pivotal, and how somebody does in the debate could impact how he’s used going forward,” said Joel K. Goldstein, an expert on vice presidents and a law professor at Saint Louis University.
There is also pressure on Kaine and Pence not to go too easy on each other. Goldstein noted that Gore's campaign was frustrated with Joe Lieberman after his civil 2000 debate with Dick Cheney, as was Bob Dole's campaign when Jack Kemp failed to go on the offensive against Gore during the 1996 debate. “It really was a huge missed opportunity because he really needed somebody to go after Clinton’s character,” Goldstein said.
4. They both remain relative unknowns.
Nearly one-third of likely voters have no opinion of either Kaine or Pence, according to a Fox News poll released late last week, with 31 percent saying they haven't formulated an opinion of Kaine and 28 percent saying so of Pence.
A Bloomberg Politics national poll released Sept. 26 found that just under a quarter of likely voters weren't sure how they feel about either candidate. Among those with an opinion, Kaine and Pence each had a net positive rating of 7 points.
5. Their own records will be scrutinized.
Pence is best known for the staunchly conservative and evangelical agenda he pushed as a U.S. congressman for 12 years, and the nationwide controversy during his one term as governor over a religious-freedom law he signed in 2015 that sparked a backlash from gay-rights advocates and businesses who slammed it as discriminatory against LGBT Americans.
Kaine, for his part, may have to defend his complicated history with the death penalty: from calling it “outrageous” as he defended men facing execution as a young lawyer in the 1980s to overseeing 11 executions as governor. He has also given a hazy answer about his position on the Hyde Amendment, which bans taxpayer funding for abortion, saying he supports it while also saying he'd support Clinton's agenda to repeal it.
6. The format will encourage actual debate.
The debate is set to include nine segments of roughly 10 minutes each, in which moderator Elaine Quijano of CBS News asks an opening questions, allows two minutes for a response before asking follow-ups, according to the Commission on Presidential Debates.
—With assistance from Mike Dorning.