A record 84 million people watched the first face-off between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton last week. And those who tuned in for a spectacle were not disappointed. By comparison, the matchup tonight between their respective No. 2s should pack all the excitement of a televised taste test between Triscuits and Wheat Thins.
Republican Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and Democratic Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine—similarly earnest, avuncular figures, born a year apart, both with experience in Congress and as chief executives of their respective states but without big national profiles—will likely each turn in a competent performance tonight. (The two take the stage at 9 p.m. E.ST., at Longwood University in Farmville, Va., and the event will be broadcast by CBS.)
But the pressure will be piled on Pence to reverse the GOP ticket’s tailspin.
After losing the debate last week, Trump has been engaged in what appears to be a slow-motion meltdown, attacking a former beauty queen, firing off angry tweets in the middle of the night, and stating at a rally without evidence that Clinton has been unfaithful to her husband. A cascade of reported revelations is only compounding the heat. Chief among them: the New York Times bombshell that found Trump claimed nearly $1 billion in operating losses from his business empire in 1995, allowing him to avoid up to 18 years of personal income taxes. Three days after the story landed, Team Trump still hasn’t settled on a consistent response, but the candidate himself seemed at least to acknowledge the accuracy of its information at a rally on Monday.
Pence will be in the uncomfortable position of squaring the campaign’s populist message with the apparent fact his self-described multibillionaire ticket mate has gone years without paying taxes. And there could be a lot more messiness for Pence to try to mop up in front of a live national audience. Just this week, new reporting revealed Trump once did business with an Iranian bank later linked to terrorism; acted lewdly during the filming of his NBC show, “The Apprentice;” and opted to use Chinese steel rather than buy from American manufacturers for two recent construction projects.
On the campaign trail, the Indiana governor has demonstrated a knack for prosecuting the case against Clinton, calling her State Department email scandal and her actions surrounding the Benghazi attack disqualifying. But the sheer volume of material swirling around Trump could make it difficult for the vice presidential nominee to get off of defense. And simply mounting an effective defense won’t be enough. Since last week’s debate, the Clinton campaign has been building commanding leads in national and swing state polls. The Republicans look increasingly in need of a supernatural event to reverse their fortunes.
Pence acknowledged at a Monday night rally near Richmond that he expects the debate to focus on those at the top of the ticket. But he also said, “I kind of hope we get to talk about our records as well.” The mild-mannered evangelical Christian has demonstrated there are limits to how far he’ll go sticking up for his running mate. When Trump was engaged in a war of words with Gold Star parents this summer following their appearance at the Democratic national convention, for example, Pence called the son they’d lost “an American hero.” And last month, when Trump fanned the flames of the birther conspiracy he’d helped spread, Pence broke with him by stating that President Obama was born in Hawaii. To that end, Pence will be engaged in something of a juggling act at the debate, choosing his angles for defending Trump while also aiming to preserve his own political viability should they lose.
Kaine, for his part, has had plenty of practice since joining the ticket defending Clinton controversies. The Harvard-trained lawyer has proven a reliable surrogate in frequent interviews with national press. The Republican National Committee on Monday telegraphed a line of attack that Pence could use against Kaine’s own record: The party released a digital ad targeting legal work Kaine did for violent felons when he was fresh out of law school. The spot didn’t mention that as a devout Catholic, Kaine took on the work out of opposition to the death penalty facing his clients.