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Why this VP debate is the most important in history

The VP is always "a heartbeat away," as they say, but Tim Kaine and Mike Pence have a better-than-normal chance of actually becoming president of the United States.
Pop quiz: who is this man? (AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File)

Get ready for the most consequential vice presidential debate in history.

This is an actuarial fact: Donald Trump would be the oldest first-term president in American history; Hillary Clinton would be second-oldest after Ronald Reagan. The vp is always "a heartbeat away," as they say, but Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence have a better-than-normal chance of actually becoming president of the United States.


And yet, in contrast to the big personalities at the top of the ticket, these guys are about as thrilling as cargo shorts and performance fleece. "The only way they're going to get any attention is if Tim Kaine pulls out his cellphone and tweets about a Mike Pence sex tape," Bloomberg Politics Managing Editor Mark Halperin said on "Meet the Press" Sunday.

It's true that in past elections, there was little evidence that the vice presidential debate affected the outcome on election day. Even when vice presidential candidates made infamous mistakes (Dan Quayle in '88, George H.W. Bush in '84), the ticket went on to victory. Jose DelReal, the Washington Post's Trump reporter, tweeted, "The stakes tonight are so low that basically whoever says 'malarkey" first will win."

And yet, with a self-described political neophyte on one side and a policy wonk on the other, the actual presidential debates have been remarkably substance-free. The VP candidates, on the other hand, have spent most of their adult lives in the political arena, meaning a high likelihood of a classic Republican-Democrat exchange on the issues. Imagine.

Kaine was a city councilman and mayor of Richmond before serving as lieutenant governor, governor, and senator of Virginia. Pence first ran for Congress in 1988 and eventually won in 2000. After Pence's 12 years in Congress, the voters of Indiana elected him governor in 2012.

Both candidates regularly reference their Catholicism when describing their politics, but in very different ways. Pence became more of a Reagan culture warrior, whereas Kaine became a social justice caretaker.

While signing a restrictive abortion law earlier this year, Pence said, "I sign this law with a prayer that God would continue to bless these precious children, mothers, and families." He describes himself as an "evangelical Catholic."

Kaine, on the other hand, has said, "My faith position is a Good Samaritan position of trying to watch out for the other person." On the politically divisive issues of abortion, homosexuality, and the death penalty, Kaine says he distinguishes between his personal morality and his policy positions.

Tonight, however, the respective candidates will likely have to attack and defend Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump's positions rather than their own. Given Trump's turbulent last week with an odd 3 a.m. tweetstorm about a former Miss Universe and revelations that he may not have paid income tax for over a decade, Pence likely has the more difficult task of the two nominees. And in case Pence doesn't do a satisfactory job, Trump has already announced that he'll be live-tweeting the debate.