WASHINGTON — GOP vice presidential nominee Mike Pence will have a chance to change the focus of the presidential campaign in his debate Tuesday night with Democratic counterpart Tim Kaine, who will try to keep the spotlight on Donald Trump.
That dynamic could bring more viewers to the running mates’ only scheduled one-on-one exchange than had been expected before Trump experienced one of the worst weeks of his campaign, starting with his performance at the first presidential debate last week.
“When you have a debate smack in the middle of that, it really does raise the stakes,” said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan and editor of a new book, Debating the Donald. “It’s a tall order for Pence.”
Neither Indiana Gov. Pence nor Virginia Sen. Kaine had much of a national profile before being chosen, and they have been mostly overshadowed by their running mates.
At times, Pence has received more media attention than Kaine, but often because he has had to be the “explainer in chief” of controversial Trump comments.
That task has substantially increased in importance.
“He needs to come across as a calming presence on the Republican ticket, and he could be placed on the defensive, given how Trump has handled himself since his first debate with Clinton,” said Robert Schmuhl, professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame.
About six in 10 respondents to a Gallup survey after the presidential debate said Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton did the better job, compared with less than three in 10 who thought Trump won. That gap was one of the largest in Gallup’s post-debate polls since 1960.
Since the debate:
- Trump went on a Twitter rant about the weight gain of a former Miss Universe.
- The New York Times reported Trump declared a tax loss of almost $1 billion in 1995 and may have avoided paying federal income taxes for 18 years.
- The Associated Press reported Trump repeatedly demeaned women with sexist language while hosting The Apprentice.
- The New York attorney general’s office ordered Trump's foundation to stop soliciting contributions.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who helped Pence prepare for Tuesday’s 90-minute debate at Longwood University in Farmville, Va., said Pence has to quickly dismiss the attacks on Trump and pivot to the problems of Clinton.
“If this election on Nov. 8 is about Hillary Clinton, she loses,” Walker said in a Sunday interview on John Catsimatidis’ radio show. “If it’s about some other assortment of side issues, then it’s a much more difficult race.”
The Trump campaign is trying to turn the attention to the money Clinton earned giving speeches after she served as a senator and secretary of State. And the Republican National Committee released a video Monday attacking Kaine for defending two killers when he was an attorney.
“He consistently protected the worst kinds of people,” the video says.
A super PAC supporting Clinton went after Pence, saying his record on women’s issues is just as bad as Trump’s.
Pence also was on the losing end of a ruling Monday by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld a lower court’s opinion that Pence can’t block aid to Syrian refugees resettling in Indiana.
While Pence and Kaine could go after each other’s records in their debate, the focus is likely to be on the top of the ticket.
“It seems to me that, there, Pence has a lot of area to defend,” said Joel Goldstein, a vice presidential expert at the Saint Louis University School of Law.
If Pence does well, he could help the ticket as Vice President Biden did by turning in a strong debate performance after President Obama’s bad start in 2012.
Or, Goldstein said, either of the running mates could be faulted, as Jack Kemp was in 1996 and Joe Lieberman was in 2000, for not being tough enough on the presidential candidates.
“A big part of their role is to attack the presidential candidate and defend the partner on the other side,” he said.
The running mates have a few other tasks in the biggest moment of their campaign: do no harm and show that they’re capable of stepping in to the top slot if needed.
Kall, who watched Pence’s 2012 gubernatorial debates and Kaine’s 2012 Senate debates, said both are solid debaters, unlikely to commit any gaffes.
Both may have had more difficultly preparing for the debate because moderator Elaine Quijano, a CBS News correspondent and anchor, isn’t as well-known as some other debate moderators.
Kall suspects both sides studied her record and past interviews to get a sense of what questions she’ll ask and how she’ll pose them. Tens of millions of people are expected to see the debate — more than 51 million tuned in to the Biden-Ryan debate in 2012.
After Tuesday’s debate, Kaine is scheduled to campaign across Pennsylvania.
Pence is taking a bus tour through Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio.