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