At tonight’s de­bate, the No. 2’s stand in for the No. 1’s

Baltimore Sun - - ELECTION 2016 - By Philip Rucker and Robert Costa

Tonight’s de­bate is be­tween the No. 2’s, but it will be all about the No. 1’s.

In­di­ana Gov. Mike Pence, the Repub­li­can vice pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee, and Sen. Tim Kaine, the Demo­cratic con­tender, will share the big­gest and most haz­ardous stage of their ca­reers when they face off in Far­mville, Va., for their only face-to­face meet­ing, and it is ex­pected to cen­ter on the two fig­ures atop the tickets.

Pence and Kaine are poised to duel over the tem­per­a­ment, qual­i­fi­ca­tions, hon­esty and records of Repub­li­can Don­ald Trump and Demo­crat Hil­lary Clin­ton, as the two af­fa­ble and smooth-talk­ing men ex­plain and pro­mote their his­tor­i­cally un­pop­u­lar run­ning mates.

Pence has a par­tic­u­larly tough chal­lenge: Trump’s in­cen­di­ary state­ments and er­ratic be­hav­ior, es­pe­cially over the past week, have formed a hur­ri­cane at the cen­ter of the Repub­li­can cam­paign; Pence could be forced again and again to ac­count for Trump’s ac­tions.

“He’s got to be ready for how they come at him, whether it’s as some kind of rigid right-wing con­ser­va­tive or if they use the de­bate as a way to go af­ter Don­ald’s tweet­ing or his po­si­tion on im­mi­gra­tion,” said Rudy Giuliani, a for­mer New York mayor and a close ad­viser to Trump. Michael Fo­ley cleans the set for the vice pres­i­den­tial de­bate sched­uled to be held tonight at Long­wood Univer­sity in Far­mville, Va.

The de­bate, which be­gins at 9 p.m. on the cam­pus of Long­wood Univer­sity, comes at a trou­bling time for Trump. He is reel­ing from a tu­mul­tuous per­for­mance in his first de­bate with Clin­ton last week, his at­tacks on a Latina beauty queen, his hos­tile 3 a.m. out­bursts on so­cial me­dia and new rev­e­la­tions about his taxes.

“Mike Pence needs to go in there and try to change the tra­jec­tory of the race, but he can’t do that be­cause the big­gest prob­lem with their cam­paign right now is the pres­i­den­tial can­di­date,” said Mo Ellei­thee, a for­mer Kaine ad­viser who now di­rects Ge­orge­town Univer­sity’s In­sti­tute of Pol­i­tics and Pub­lic Service.

Clin­ton spokesman Brian Fal­lon in­sisted that Pence will not be able to wash away the wor­ries vot­ers have about Trump’s tem­per­a­ment and qual­i­fi­ca­tions: “No mat­ter what type of per­for­mance Mike Pence turns in, it’s not go­ing to re­solve the un­der­ly­ing con­cerns.”

His­tor­i­cally, vot­ers have tuned into vice pres­i­den­tial de­bates to see whether the can­di­dates — Sarah Palin, Dan Quayle and John Edwards, to name a few — ap­pear pre­pared for the pres­i­dency should the need arise.

But Pence and Kaine seem to have met the gov­ern­ing thresh­old al­ready with their sea­soned tenures in elected fed­eral and state offices. On the Repub­li­can ticket, for in­stance, Pence is more qual­i­fied for the pres­i­dency by tra­di­tional stan­dards than Trump.

Both vice pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nees have been study­ing binders of is­sue brief­ings on their planes be­tween cam­paign stops, and each spent the past few days en­sconced with ad­vis­ers gam­ing out pos­si­ble lines of ques­tion­ing and re­hears­ing an­swers. In their mock de­bates, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has been Pence’s stand-in for Kaine, while Wash­ing­ton su­per-lawyer Robert Bar­nett has been Kaine’s stand-in for Pence.

Kaine ref­er­enced the drudgery of his in­ten­sive de­bate prepa­ra­tions on the day af­ter Clin­ton’s nearcol­lapse at a Sept. 11 com­mem­o­ra­tion in New York. He re­counted to an au­di­ence in Day­ton, Ohio, that Clin­ton “started mak­ing fun of me be­cause I was sit­ting read­ing end­less de­bate prep memos.”

The de­bate’s set­ting in Far­mville, which was cho­sen long be­fore Clin­ton and Trump picked their run­ning mates, gives the for­mer Vir­ginia gov­er­nor a home field ad­van­tage. Far­mville was the epi­cen­ter of Vir­ginia’s civil rights struggle, a point of res­o­nance for Kaine, a for­mer civil rights lawyer and the son-in-law of a for­mer gov­er­nor, Lin­wood Holton, who helped i nte­grate Rich­mond’s schools in the 1970s. The state’s emer­gence from its seg­re­ga­tion­ist past as a di­verse eco­nomic pow­er­house also gives Kaine a dra­matic back­drop against which to crit­i­cize Trump’s na­tion­al­ist agenda and racially charged state­ments.

When Kaine served as Vir­ginia’s gov­er­nor, Pence was work­ing on Capi­tol Hill as a House mem­ber. They switched places in 2013, with Pence be­com­ing In­di­ana’s gov­er­nor and Kaine join­ing the Se­nate.

“We talked by phone once, but I never met him,” Kaine said in a re­cent in­ter­view.

“He called and said, ‘Hey, wel­come aboard.’ He had been on the ticket a week be­fore me.”

Both No. 2’s have their fu­ture ca­reers to con­sider dur­ing their turn be­fore what could be a na­tional tele­vi­sion au­di­ence of tens of mil­lions of peo­ple. Pence, 57, has an eye on a pos­si­ble 2020 pres­i­den­tial run should Trump lose, while Kaine, 58, also has na­tional am­bi­tions.

Ahead of tonight’s fo­rum, there is pres­sure on Kaine and Pence to shore up their tickets by sig­nal­ing re­as­sur­ances to key con­stituen­cies. Kaine could look to val­i­date Clin­ton’s pro­gres­sive cre­den­tials, while Pence could use his evan­gel­i­cal roots to make over­tures on Trump’s be­half to so­cial conservatives.

Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith & Free­dom Coali­tion, said Pence’s as­set will be con­vinc­ing church-go­ing Repub­li­cans of Trump’s al­le­giance.

“If he gets a slow un­der­hand pitch on a moral or cul­tural is­sue, you know he’ll be able to do re­ally well with it,” he said. “There is no bet­ter am­bas­sador for Trump among so­cial conservatives.”

Pence and Kaine could be forced to ex­plain some of the more con­tro­ver­sial items in their records, such as Pence sign­ing and later re­vis­ing a re­li­gious lib­er­ties law last year that could have al­lowed busi­nesses to refuse service to gay peo­ple, or Kaine’s work as an at­tor­ney de­fend­ing sus­pected crim­i­nals, which was the sub­ject of an at­tack video the Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee re­leased Mon­day.

MARK WIL­SON/GETTY IM­AGES

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