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The V.P. Debate: Two Candidates Try to Stand Out From, Yet Also With, Their Running Mates

Tuesday, October 4, 2016 15:42
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  Indiana Governor and GOP vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence and Virginia Senator and Democratic vice-presidential pick Tim Kaine. (Gage Skidmore (CC-BY-SA) / United States Senate)

In the eyes of many dissatisfied voters, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine have at least one good thing going for them as politicians: They’re not Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.

Still, the Republican and Democrat have hitched their respective wagons, and thus their fates, to those of their party’s presidential nominees as their running mates for the White House. Their task, on Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate at Longwood University in Farmville, Va., will consist of a tricky balancing act in which they must sell themselves on their own merits while never losing sight of the need to prop up and promote the man and woman getting top billing on their tickets.

That’s not exactly new when it comes to their job description. But as Politico’s Glenn Thrush noted, Pence and Kaine both have to take on board some age-related considerations that may influence how they and their presidential partners are viewed this time around:

In years past, veep debates have actually been consequential, substantive and entertaining: Sarah Palin was the biggest draw ever, and she acquitted pretty well against a smug Joe Biden; Dan Quayle guffawed when Lloyd Bentsen compared him unfavorably to JFK; Geraldine Ferraro bristled when George H. W. Bush (not exactly a Trump-style meanie) suggested she didn’t know much about history or geography.

Who knows what to expect from Pence-Kaine, and who cares? As one of my POLITICO colleagues said earlier this week, “Both of these guys could set themselves on fire and nobody would notice.”

So sure, laugh it up. But the reality is that both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are old people, and (if their respective opponents are to be believed) uncommonly vulnerable to impeachment, imprisonment or a health calamity so dire that either one of these parochial-middle-school-principal-looking dudes could end up leader of the free world.

Given these chronological considerations, could be that Americans watching tonight’s debate, moderated by CBS News’ Elaine Quijano, will be paying closer attention to the aspiring V.P.s’ backgrounds and stated positions. 

Quijano’s presence in the mix is also noteworthy in that discussions about race and gender have played a considerable role in press coverage and campaign-trail commentary from Trump and Clinton themselves. Quijano, as CNNMoney’s Dylan Byers pointed out on debate day, is “the first Asian-American journalist ever to moderate a national debate, and the youngest in 28 years.”

That said, The New York Times’ Alexander Burns brought a slightly different perspective to his pre-debate take, suggesting, in short, that Pence and Kaine cannot and will not (and perhaps should not) get out from Trump’s and Clinton’s shadows:

Pence and Kaine will not be the main focus at their own debate.

Do not let their physical presence onstage fool you: These two men may serve more as stand-ins for their running mates than as combatants in their own right.

In a conventional race, the vice-presidential candidates might engage in a thorough discussion of each other’s records. But in a campaign defined by two larger-than-life presidential nominees, Mr. Kaine and Mr. Pence are more likely to punch upward, with Mr. Kaine prosecuting the case against Mr. Trump’s temperament and character, and Mr. Pence pressing the message that Mrs. Clinton cannot change Washington the way Mr. Trump can.

Adding to the potential need to keep their eyes on their superiors is data like this from professional pollsters who claim that Clinton is pulling far ahead from Trump in the final run-up to Nov. 8. 

For his part, Mike Pence has one big backer on his side as he prepares for his national close-up:

Still, even some of the commenting class paid to cover Tuesday’s event aren’t exactly expecting an October surprise:

Not sure how to catch the debate? Here’s a guide from Fortune.

Meanwhile, we’ll be live blogging the proceedings from this story page. See you in a few.

—Posted by Kasia Anderson

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