FARMVILLE, Va. – In their only debate faceoff, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine will try Tuesday night to carry forward a fresh burst of Democratic momentum in the presidential campaign while Indiana Gov. Mike Pence seeks to steady Donald Trump's White House bid after one of the Republican's worst stretches of the race.
Pence and Kaine, Hillary Clinton's running mate, seem unlikely to dramatically change the way voters view the top two, who are among the most well-known figures in the country. Still, the nationally televised debate will be a spotlight opportunity for the longtime politicians to introduce themselves to Americans, energize party loyalists and potentially sway the shrinking pool of undecided voters.
For the earnest and easygoing Kaine, that means defending Clinton's character and reputation, her Achilles' heel throughout the campaign. And it means blocking any attempts by Pence — an equally genial politician — to make Trump's controversial statements and policy proposals seem more palatable.
"When it comes to the issues, it's hard to tell them apart," Hillary Clinton's campaign said of Trump and Pence in a video released ahead of the debate. "From the alt-right racists supporting their ticket to women's health to immigration to LGBT equality to global warming to the minimum wage, it's no wonder that Donald Trump picked Mike Pence."
The 90-minute showdown at Virginia's Longwood University will be moderated by Elaine Quijano of CBS News. While last week's first presidential debate was watched by a record-setting television audience of 84 million people, Tuesday's contest is expected to have smaller viewership given Pence and Kaine's lower profiles in the campaign.
In a recent Associated Press-GfK poll, more than half of registered voters said they didn't know enough about Kaine to venture an opinion about him and about 44 percent said the same for Pence.
Clinton was widely viewed as the winner of her opening debate with Trump, rattling the real estate mogul with jabs about his business record and demeaning statements about women, and responding to his attacks with calm rejoinders. New public opinion polls have showed her improving her standing in nearly all battleground states.
At least some of Clinton's bounce is likely attributable to Trump's conduct coming out of the debate. He redoubled his criticism of a beauty queen and her weight, one of the topics Clinton raised in the debate, and went on a pre-dawn Twitter tirade trying to disparage the former Miss Universe.
That firestorm was deflected only by revelations that Trump suffered more than $900 million in losses in 1995 that could have allowed him to avoid paying federal income taxes for as many as 18 years, according to records obtained by The New York Times.
In Tuesday's debate, Pence will likely find himself trying to clean up Trump's controversies, as has often been the case since he joined the GOP ticket this summer. The governor signaled that he would frame the matters as attempts by Clinton to obscure her own record.
"The media is so busy parsing every word that Donald Trump said in the past 30 minutes, they've been ignoring what the Clintons (have) been up to the last 30 years," Pence said during a campaign stop Monday night. "Hillary Clinton's record on foreign affairs alone could take up the whole 90 minutes, and it wouldn't be a pretty picture."
Pence was picked as Trump's running mate in part because he has the conservative credentials the businessman lacks. His addition to the ticket was cheered by conservative leaders in Washington, and Trump's supporters are hoping his debate performance will be similarly appealing for Republican voters who may still be skeptical of Trump's ideology.
"There's Pence speak and there's Trump speak — Mike Pence using the language of conservative orthodoxy and Donald Trump using the language of a brash businessman," said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union.
Kaine, who served as Virginia's governor before becoming senator, is largely in step with Clinton on key issues. While he voted to give President Barack Obama fast-track authority for the Trans Pacific Partnership, he's since joined Clinton in opposing the final version of the trade pact.
Both Pence and Kaine are deeply religious, which could bring faith to the forefront of the debate, a rarity in this campaign.
Pence was raised Catholic, but is now a Protestant evangelical. His signature line is: "I'm a Christian, a conservative and a Republican — in that order."
Kaine speaks frequently about how his Jesuit mission work in Honduras shaped his life. At times, his Catholicism has run up against his governing choices. After opposing gay marriage in his 2005 gubernatorial run, he later broke with the church to support it. He says he's personally against abortion but has consistently voted in favor of abortion rights.
Pace reported from Washington. Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC and Thomas Beaumont at http://twitter.com/TomBeaumont