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Vice presidential debate tonight: How much does it matter?

Republican Mike Pence and Democrat Tim Kaine will meet tonight in Farmville, Va., for the vice presidential debate. How many voters will be watching?

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A sign hanging above South Main Street welcomes visitors to historic Farmville, Va., Monday, Oct. 3, 2016. The only vice presidential debate of the 2016 general election campaign takes place Tuesday at Longwood University in Farmville, Va.

David Goldman/AP

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Little more than a week after the first presidential debate, vice presidential candidates Mike Pence and Tim Kaine are preparing for battle in Farmville, Va.

While the vice presidential debate may not capture the nation’s attention in the same way that scheduled stand-offs between presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton do, experts say that Governor Pence and Senator Kaine have a chance to influence their respective campaigns.

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“A big part of their role is to attack the presidential candidate and defend the partner on the other side,” said Saint Louis University vice presidential expert Joel Goldstein, reported USA Today.

And there’s a lot to attack on both sides.

As the Democratic candidate, Kaine will defend Mrs. Clinton against accusations of dishonesty, or at the very least, lack of transparency. The scandal that primary challenger Senator Bernie Sanders called “your damn emails” is still very much alive, and the Trump camp is certain to capitalize on that.

Also up for discussion will be Clinton’s Wall Street speeches, according to election experts, as the Trump campaign attempts to divert attention from some of the issues on which Clinton’s views are more popular.

“If this election on Nov. 8 is about Hillary Clinton, she loses,” said Wisconsin governor Scott Walker on a radio show on Sunday. “If it’s about some other assortment of side issues, then it’s a much more difficult race.”

Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s vice presidential candidate has been saddled with the difficult task of defending a man whose campaign appears to have escalated into new levels of bizarre this week.

Since the presidential debate last Monday, the businessman-turned-politician has attacked former Miss Universe Alicia Machado on Twitter, questioned Clinton’s health, brought up former president Bill Clinton’s lack of fidelity, and struggled to deal with the public revelation that he may have avoided paying federal income taxes for 18 years.

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“When you have a debate smack in the middle of that, it really does raise the stakes,” said Aaron Kall, director of debating at the University of Michigan and editor of "Debating the Donald," according to USA Today. “It’s a tall order for Pence.”

Although some party officials have urged Mr. Trump to run a disciplined campaign since the beginning, the candidate has thus far neglected that advice. Some Republican party leaders are concerned, the Washington Post reports.

“You’ve got the nomination of the party, and you’ve got a certain responsibility to the party to try to win this thing, but he gets sidetracked very easily,” campaign tactic expert and former Republican congressman Tom Davis told The Washington Post. “He goes off on personal vendettas, and it’s just not helpful if you want to win. The tragedy is he has every opportunity to win.”

Trump’s inability to keep his cool has raised the stakes for Pence, who now must appear to lend a measure of calm and clarity to the campaign while facing tough questions about Trump’s tax returns and policies.

“He needs to come across as a calming presence on the Republican ticket, and he could be placed on the defensive, given how Trump has handled himself since his first debate with Clinton,” said University of Notre Dame professor Robert Schmuhl.

Yet despite the stakes for the candidates themselves, will anybody actually watch the debate?

Although Gallup polling between 1976 and 2008 showed that no vice presidential debate made a real difference in poll numbers, last Monday’s presidential debate broke viewership records, with at least 84 million people tuning in.

In 2008, the vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin was watched by 67 million US viewers, breaking records for vice presidential debate viewership.

With the character of the candidates and the volume of issues on the table during tonight’s debate, it isn’t a stretch to imagine that Americans will be similarly intrigued.

Both vice presidential candidates are expected to campaign in the region following the debate.