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Mike Pence and Tim Kaine to debate in clash of the 'unknowns'

The vice-presidential candidates will face off tonight in Virginia. Many voters don't know Pence or Kaine, but the debate will be more about Trump and Clinton anyway.
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4 Oct 2016 – 02:18 PM EDT

Quite unlike last week's debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, tonight's meeting between Mike Pence, Republican governor of Indiana, and Tim Kaine, Democrat senator of Virginia, has not generated much excitement.

The vice-presidential candidates are barely known to voters, who have focused almost entirely on the presidential candidates throughout the election cycle. In many ways, Kaine, a fluent Spanish speaker with a long and progressive political history, and Pence, a laid back, right-wing conservative Christian, seem almost boring compared to their running mates.

According to a recent ABC News survey, 41% of respondents could not identify their party's vice-presidential candidate.

But analysts expect the vice-presidential debate to play an important role in the election cycle. And the ABC poll showed that 64% of respondents were willing to watch tonight's debate between the two vice-presidential candidates.

"Loyal soldiers"

Cesar Martinez, a political analyst and Republican adviser, says the importance of the debate can not be overstated. "These debates are the most democratic moment in the campaign," says Martinez, who advised John McCain's and Mitt Romney's campaigns during their presidential bids. "They are job interviews. Viewers can finally see both candidates together talking about the same issues."

Unlike last week's presidential debate, the vice-presidential debate does not conflict with a sporting event. "The close presidential race in the polls has meant that people are very attuned to the campaign," said Craig LaMay, associate professor of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

However, LaMay recognizes that Kaine and Pence do not have very strong personalities. "They don’t present themselves as fighters or controversial [figures]," so their jobs will be to "advocate for their bosses, not for themselves."

"They fulfill the job vice-presidential candidates did in the 19th century: campaign for their [presidential] candidate, not themselves. They are loyal soldiers," LaMay added.

Unknown debate agenda

The candidates must be prepared to discuss a range of issues, as they will not be told beforehand the topics of discussion.

"They should focus on their experience in order to center the issue on themselves, appear sufficiently knowledgeable about the issues and convince us that if something were to happen to the president we are not left with an incompetent person," said Jack Citrin, a professor of political science and director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of Berkeley.

"None of the vice-presidential candidates has any major scandals that can be exploited," he added.

Kaine's hometown advantage

The debate will be held at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia, in Kaine's home state. Currently a U.S. senator from Virginia, Kaine was also governor of the state and mayor of Richmond.

Analysts do not consider the debate's location to be a huge advantage for Kaine, as the live audience will not only be students invited to the auditorium, but also millions watching the debate on television. But they admit Kaine could have a "home turf" advantage. After all, Clinton chose Kaine as vice-presidential candidate precisely for the votes he could attract in a state like Virginia, considered a key battleground state.

Kaine also speaks fluent Spanish, which he learned doing missionary work in Honduras. He was the first congressman to speak Spanish in the Senate during a debate over immigration reform.

"It is possible that Kaine will issue a few phrases in Spanish in the debate to tell the Latino community to come out and vote," said Republican Martinez. "Doing so could mark a milestone in the debate. No one has ever done that before."

Kaine also has to speak to independents and millennials who have proven elusive to Clinton.

"It is certain that Kaine will want to exploit Trump’s weaknesses, especially exploiting points that Pence disagrees with Trump over, which has surfaced in several interviews," Professor Citrin said.

And Kaine's prepared for that. Robert Barnett, a high-profile Washington lawyer, has played the role of Pence in Kaine’s rehearsals, according to Politico. Barnett, who has acted as a literary agent for Clinton, also acted as Senator Bernie Sanders during debate rehearsals in the primaries.

Pence’s even hand

Pence, meanwhile, served in Congress for more than a decade before becoming governor of Indiana.

Contrary to Trump, who decided not to rehearse for the debate, Pence has practiced mock debates with the help of the governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, who has played Kaine, as he confirmed on Twitter.

Experts agree that Pence will have to work to restore Trump’s battered image after his debate with Clinton. The governor will have to answer specific points that Trump left out, such as his foreign policy, his tax proposal as well as his daily dramas – for instance, if he pays taxes or not.

"Pence is more articulate, he is a more laid back version of Trump," Professor Citrin said. "The weight on his shoulders is very large and he may want to insist on exploiting the Clinton scandals or some new ones the campaign is preparing," he said.

Pence will also have to try to curry favor with women and African Americans voters, although current sources say it unlikely he will be able sway the Latino vote in his favor.

"Can I call you Joe?"

In Professor LaMay’s opinion, both Pence and Kaine have a "mild and undramatic" temperament compared to Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic senator who debated against the Republican Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in 2008.

That debate was one of the most watched vice presidential debates in history: according to Nielsen ratings, 69.9 million viewers tuned it, even surpassing the number of viewers who watched the first presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain, which attracted an audience of 52.4 million.

A memorable line also came out of that debate, when Palin greeted Biden by asking: "Hi, can I call you Joe?"