WASHINGTON (AFP) — Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s running mates carried the race for the White House Tuesday, preparing to face off in their only debate of the campaign with the US elections five weeks away.
Polls show Clinton, the Democratic candidate, gaining in the wake of a punishing week for her Republican rival Trump, who was hammered by controversies over his taxes, his charitable foundation and treatment of women.
The candidates’ number two’s — Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence — will take their place in the spotlight Tuesday evening when they do battle before a national television audience.
For many Americans, it will be their first prolonged exposure to the little-known men who would be next in line for the presidency if their side wins on November 8.
Kaine, 58, is an affable senator from Virginia whose liberalism stems in part from his Catholic faith and experiences as a volunteer working in poor communities in Central America.
I will be watching the great Governor @Mike_Pence and live tweeting the VP debate tonight starting at 8:30pm est! Enjoy!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 4, 2016
Pence, 57, is the Christian conservative governor of Indiana, as modest and polite in style as Trump is brash and insulting.
Pence’s job will be to reassure prospective Republican voters at a time when Trump is mired in difficulties, many of his own making.
Weighing heavily against the New York billionaire are a mediocre performance in his first debate with Clinton, followed by revelations of a near billion dollar loss in 1995 that may have meant he paid no taxes for 18 years, and criticism of his demeaning treatment of a former Miss Universe, Alicia Machado.
His campaign manager Kellyanne Conway promises the Kaine-Pence debate will be “fiery.”
“I think you’ll see in Mike Pence somebody who is able to defend Donald Trump the running mate, but at the same time, take the case right to Hillary Clinton,” she said on CBS.
Pence, who spent a dozen years as a member of Congress, is known for his discipline. He has prepared intensively for the debate, unlike Trump, who did little to practice for his September 26 encounter with Clinton.
“We expect them to throw a lot of mud,” said Clinton campaign manager Robbie Mook, ahead of the debate in Farmville, Virginia.
“It’s going to be very interesting to see how Mike Pence responds to questions about Trump’s behavior in the last week,” he added, also speaking on “CBS This Morning.”
Defending Trump has become second nature for Pence: he’s had to put out fires on multiple occasions over the past months.
When Trump became embroiled in a bitter feud with the family of a Muslim-American army captain killed in Iraq, it was Pence who put out a statement hailing Humayun Khan as an “American hero.”
Besides reassuring voters turned off by Trump’s volcanic temper, Pence must attack Clinton while pushing a larger theme of change — something many Americans say they want — and laying out the Republican agenda.
Kaine, who served as governor of Virginia from 2006 to 2010, appears to have the easier task of the two. Since the first presidential debate, support for Clinton has risen to 44.3 percent to 40.6 percent for Trump, according to an average of recent national polls compiled by Real Clear Politics.
Clinton is also leading in several key swing states.
Kaine’s role so far has been to attack Trump. But he must also use Tuesday’s debate to defend Clinton against attacks on her for using a private email server as secretary of state, as well as in other controversies that have undercut voters’ confidence in her honesty and trustworthiness.
After the vice presidential debates, Americans will have a second round of presidential debates on Sunday to look forward to. The format will be a bit different, with candidates fielding questions put to them by people in the audience.