Will Kaine-Pence debate live up to Clinton-Trump faceoff?

Story highlights

  • Julian Zelizer : Veep candidates need to show at debate that they could handle the job of president
  • History offers many examples of debates at which candidates stumbled, says Zelizer

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Ordinarily vice presidential debates don't command much attention. Since they became regular features in 1976, when Senator Bob Dole squared off against Senator Walter Mondale, the veep candidates are the second-string players in the Super Bowl.

When the debate takes place Tuesday, the challenge to grab viewers' interest will be greater than ever before. Everyone is focused on the main event, where two high-voltage candidates have only just had the first of their three debates. And both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump intentionally selected running mates -- Tim Kaine and Mike Pence -- who would not distract too much attention from their candidacies.
    These are both safe and even "boring" veep picks, meant to give voters confidence in the ticket rather than to excite and inspire.
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    VP debate: Pence looking for Tim Kaine stand-in


      VP debate: Pence looking for Tim Kaine stand-in


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    Thus far neither man has played a major role in the campaign. Both have been overshadowed by the overwhelming presence of Clinton and Trump. Yet each still has a significant part in the campaign strategies. Notably, Tuesday night will be first major moment when both campaigns have a chance to respond to the recent revelations about Trump's tax returns.
    Pence has been central to Trump's efforts to win over congressional Republicans and reassure voters that he will stick to conservative principles and be able to handle the job. In addition, Trump is hoping that a good performance by Pence could reverse the bad press coverage he has been receiving, similar to when Joe Biden outperformed Paul Ryan in 2012 after Barack Obama's stumble at the first debate against Romney. For Clinton, Kaine has been important to her appeal in battleground states and to her claim that she, more than anyone else, has the ability to create a broad, governing coalition.
    It is too bad that we don't pay more attention to the vice presidential debates, or the vice presidential candidates, since they have vastly increased their influence since the 1960s. We still treat them as irrelevant figures whose main function is to attend ceremonies and show up when presidents are too busy to go. This simply doesn't reflect the vice president in the age of George H.W. Bush, Al Gore, Dick Cheney, and Joe Biden.
    At the heart of the vice presidential debates is the need to avoid making any big mistakes. The goal is to get through these events without causing any trouble for the campaign rather than doing something with any expectation of fundamentally changing the dynamics of the race.
    Still, we have seen several kinds of repeated mistakes that have caused trouble for campaigns.

    Showing inexperience and incompetence

    For every vice presidential candidate, it is essential to make voters comfortable with knowing that if needed they could handle the job of president. With the questions surrounding whether Donald Trump is actually qualified for the president, this is more pertinent for Mike Pence than ever before.
    Often, candidates have been tripped up while trying to make this case during a debate. Vice President Dick Cheney eviscerated Senator John Edwards in 2004, mocking his work on the Hill and overwhelming him with his command of policy detail.
    Pence: Kaine's KKK comments 'sound desperate'
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      Pence: Kaine's KKK comments 'sound desperate'


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    With the line, "I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy," Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen delivered a devastating blow to Indiana Senator Dan Quayle in 1988 that undercut his promise to be an exciting new voice in the GOP and instead painted him as a political novice who was clearly not up for the job.
    "I think he probably was over-programmed," Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson complained afterward about Quayle. "I think he had five answers, and he used them over and over no matter what the question."
    In 2012, Vice President Biden literally overwhelmed Congressman Paul Ryan, cutting into each claim that he made and dismissing many of his basic arguments. Ryan, who was supposed to be the big ideas man of the GOP, looked much smaller and less intimidating by the end of the night.
    Ross Perot had really shaken the electoral playing field in 1992 with his independent candidacy. Perot boasted about his record in business and railed against the political system. Using television shows like CNN's "Larry King Live" as his platform, he gathered significant support as a third-party candidate.
    Then things went terribly wrong. During the vice presidential debate, his partner, the war hero Admiral James Stockdale, seemed bewildered about what was even going on. "Who am I? Why am I here?" he asked.
    While Stockdale's goal was to highlight, like Perot, that he was not some career politician, the line fell flat. Viewers wondered who he was and whether he was even serious, fueling concerns about whether Perot was someone capable of being president. Things got even worse when Stockdale asked the moderator to repeat a question since he "didn't have my hearing aid turned on."

    Failing to attack

    Besides demonstrating experience and competence, the other job of the vice presidential candidate is to serve as the attack dog, to go after the opposition in ways that would be unbecoming for the party nominee (though in 2016 Trump has clearly served as his own attack dog).
    In 1996, Congressman Jack Kemp was supposed to be an exciting running mate, a candidate with charisma and ideas meant to inject some Reaganesque juice into Senator Dole's laggard campaign. His mission was to go after Al Gore, and the administration's policies, in aggressive fashion to undercut their claims of having done so much to revitalize the economy.
    Gore got Kemp off guard right from the start with some humor, saying that he wouldn't tell any "humorous stories about chlorofluorocarbon abatement" if Kemp didn't tell football stories. Kemp had played professional football for the Buffalo Bills.
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    Even though Gore did not excite many viewers and seemed stiff in front of the cameras, Kemp had trouble answering questions and seeming somewhat overwhelmed by Gore's methodical answers. Following the debate, Kemp didn't seem quite as exciting as the Republicans had hoped. The debate, one of the lowest rated (with only 26.6 million viewers), was a snoozer.
    One of Dole's advisors confidentially complained, "You have Kemp, who's a nice guy himself. And Kemp goes out there last night and he's a powder puff and he doesn't take Clinton on. We don't have an attack dog."

    Playing to party type

    On some occasions, vice presidential candidates have made big mistakes but they were able to ultimately survive the fallout. In 1976, Dole shocked many viewers when he talked about how many lives "Democrat wars" had cost in the 20th century, fueling concerns not only about his own darker side but whether he and his party where really committed to healing the nation or more interested in issuing partisan attacks even on matters like World War II.
    "I think Senator Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man tonight," said Mondale, who kept tying the senator to Watergate. "Does he really mean that there was a partisan difference over our involvement in the fight against Nazi Germany?" With the shadow of the disgraced Richard Nixon hanging over the GOP, this was not the image that Dole wanted to convey.
    When President George H.W. Bush faced off against Geraldine Ferraro, the first female candidate on a major party ticket, he seemed to do everything possible to show why there was a "gender gap" between the parties, with Republicans struggling to win over the female vote.
    At one point Bush offered to help Ferraro understand an issue related to foreign policy. "I almost resent," she said, "Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy." The term "mansplaining" wasn't in use yet, but that is exactly what Bush did. He also kept calling her "Mrs. Ferraro" and said the next day that he tried to "kick a little ass."

    Awkward moments

    Sometimes candidates just say something that becomes a source of mockery and captures the attention of the news. Although most polls indicated that Sarah Palin performed much better than anyone expected against Biden in 2008, the moment that captured most people's attention came at the very start of the campaign when the microphone caught her asking him, "Hey, can I call you Joe?"
    According to one account she asked the question after having kept calling him "O'Biden" during the campaign prep and McCain's team wanted to make sure she didn't make that mistake. Though seemingly inconsequential, the remark gave critics fodder to amplify concerns that she was too inexperienced to be running for high office.
    The good news for Pence and Kaine is that even when vice presidential candidates have performed poorly in these debates, their partners on the ticket have frequently overcome these stumbles to win the election. But in a race that is this unpredictable and this close, at least for now, every mistake must be avoided -- so the candidates might want to take a closer look at some of the things that have tripped up their predecessors.
    (Note: An earlier version incorrectly described Sen. Lloyd Bentsen's line about President John F. Kennedy.)