What to watch for in Tuesday night's vice presidential debate


The first and only head-to-head matchup between vice presidential candidates Tim Kaine and Mike Pence on Tuesday evening will almost certainly lack the fireworks — and viewership — that the first debate between their running mates generated last week.

But that doesn’t mean the undercard debate, hosted by Longwood University in the central Virginia town of Farmville, isn’t worth the time.

National polls show Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton locked in a tight race, with the former secretary of state holding a slight lead in recent surveys. Candidate gaffes, social media and the breathless media coverage of the campaigns have helped constantly shift the race’s momentum one way or another.

Even though history suggests the VP debate will do little to change undecided voters’ bottom lines, Republican Pence and Democrat Kaine will be looking to do whatever it takes to swing the race back in their party’s favor with five weeks to go until Election Day.

Here’s what you need to know about the VP debate:

The matchup starts at 9 p.m. and will air on all the major television networks. Many news organizations will be streaming the debate online, as will Facebook and Twitter. You can also follow along throughout the night on the Political Insider blog on ajc.com.

Like last week’s presidential debate, it will run for 90 minutes without commercial interruptions. The debate is carved into nine 10-minute segments. CBS News correspondent Elaine Quijano will moderate, making history as the first Asian-American to lead a general election debate.

Libertarian and Green Party VP candidates Bill Weld and Ajamu Baraka, respectively, will not be included in the debate since their running mates were unable to reach the threshold for participation set by the event organizers.

Can Pence turn things around after Trump’s bad week?

Pence, the governor of Indiana, has become a moderating force for the Trump campaign, the go-to for smoothing things out following remarks by the GOP nominee deemed questionable. How will Pence defend Trump following a tough week that saw him criticized for his late-night attacks on the weight of former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, threats to revive discussions about Bill Clinton’s extramarital activities and revelations from The New York Times about his 1995 tax returns?

Another question is what Pence will do to help improve the campaign’s standing with more educated white women, a critical demographic that Trump has struggled with in the past that will be central to clinching the White House.

Once a candidate who disavowed negative campaigning, Pence will also seek to go on the offensive regarding Clinton’s largest vulnerability, her trustworthiness. Will he spend more time discussing her use of a private email server when she was secretary of state and the Clinton Foundation, two topics that were barely discussed during last week’s debate?

Can Kaine hold the line for Clinton and give her some much-needed relatability?

Like Pence, Kaine has a reputation as a nice guy. But ever since being tapped as Clinton’s running mate, the U.S. senator from Virginia has taken on the more traditional role as an attack dog. He’ll likely continue that role during Tuesday’s debate, focusing on Trump’s recent headline-grabbing incidents as the Clinton campaign looks to put its dismal September behind it.

Given Clinton’s high unfavorability ratings, he’ll also look to show off his personable side as a harmonica-playing, Midwestern-raised dad in order to try to inject a dose of relatability and trustworthiness into a campaign that has otherwise struggled with that. Is he capable of playing offense while still appearing folksy and good-humored?

Will their inner policy wonks come out to play?

There’s no other way to put it: Both Kaine and Pence were safe picks, selected for their inoffensive personas and policy chops. It’s fair to expect Tuesday’s debate will delve a little more into policy minutia than did the first matchup between Clinton and Trump, which frequently swerved into the personal and downright bizarre.

A key topic to watch will be foreign relations, given Kaine’s and Pence’s experience on Congress’ two international affairs panels, as well as the prominence of issues on the campaign trail such as the Iraq war, trade, the Islamic State and the Iran nuclear agreement.

Another issue that could pop up is so-called “religious liberty.” Pence won the scorn of some of his core supporters on the religious right when he backtracked on a measure passed in Indiana after businesses threatened to leave the state.

Can they handle being president?

There are two reasons why this is particularly important. First, if elected, Trump would be the oldest president ever to be sworn into a first term in the U.S., and Clinton the second-oldest. The “one heartbeat away” question becomes more pertinent than ever.

Second, recent history has shown the growing sway of the VP, particularly officeholders with ties to Capitol Hill (see: Dick Cheney and Joe Biden). Given the unpopularity of both Clinton and Trump with members of the opposite party, both candidates may need to rely on their vice presidents to do the heavy lifting in Congress to help get their agendas passed.


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