With the vice presidential debate between Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine fast-approaching, media outlets are playing the typical guessing game: Who will win? For many in the Democratic camp, though, the more ominous question is: What will happen if Mike Pence wins the debate? A successful debate for Pence might translate into more votes for the Trump-Pence ticket, and with election day only a month off, that's certainly an unpleasant prospect.
On the eve of the vice presidential debate, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is trailing Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in most polls, according to The Washington Post. The latest CNN-ORC poll shows Clinton ahead by five points nationally, while new polling numbers released this week for individual state races show Clinton leading in Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Colorado, and Trump holding onto his lead in Ohio. Most attribute Clinton's surging poll numbers to her success in the first presidential debate in September. Given Trump's lagging poll numbers, a lot is riding on Pence, the social conservative who characterizes himself as a "Christian, a conservative, and a Republican — in that order," according to Bloomberg News.
In addition to defining himself as a candidate, Pence will also need to defend Trump. Part of his job will be to convince voters that "Trump’s a good guy and he’s not crazy," John Feehery, a Republican strategist, told The New York Times. In a normal election, it would be a given that the presidential candidate isn't crazy, so Pence certainly has extra ground to cover.
According to The New York Times, Pence has been studiously preparing for the debate. In addition to "studying briefing books" and "dossiers on his laptop," Pence has also been provided with "copious videos of Mr. Kaine — everything from interviews to past debates." Similarly, a Pence aide told ABC News that Pence has been preparing for this debate "since the night he received the call from Mr. Trump."
While it might seem that this diligent preparation will give him a leg up, Pence has a lot to worry about. Not only will he have to defend Trump's character, but he'll need to defend his own controversial tenure as Indiana governor. Just this week, Pence lost a highly-visible battle in his own state after a federal appeals court shot down his attempt to bar Syrian refugees from settling in Indiana, according to CNN.
In its ruling, which came one day before the debate, the three Republican-appointed judges in the 7th Circuit noted that the state of Indiana provided "no evidence that Syrian terrorists are posing as refugees or that Syrian refugees have ever committed acts of terrorism in the United States." The unambiguous ruling deemed the state's paranoia about refugees a "nightmare speculation."
While this ruling was a defeat for Pence, it seems feasible that he could use the recent news story to his advantage by appealing to the apparent xenophobia of Trump supporters. But just as easily, opponent Kaine could frame the ruling as evidence that Pence's policies in his own state have been unpopular.
Pence has faced other controversies in Indiana, most notably popular opposition to various anti-LGBTQ, anti-women bills. But again, his staunchly conservative viewpoints could theoretically be a boon in attracting far-right voters who are turned off by Trump. Come Tuesday, we'll find out whether Pence is successful at presenting himself as a reliable conservative, or if he'll spend more time defending his record.