While most vice presidential debates have no discernable influence on presidential elections, the confrontation tonight between Al Gore and Jack Kemp may be different.
Millions of viewers - and political operatives in both parties - will see the debate in St. Petersburg, Fla., as the opening salvo of the presidential campaign of the year 2000. "That makes this year's vice presidential election more interesting than usual," says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "Four years from now these two men may be debating each other as presidential candidates."
Mr. Gore and Mr. Kemp are both widely known, more so than most recent vice presidents. Both men are vigorous, attractive, and articulate, which convinces both Democrats and Republicans that they would make excellent presidential candidates four years from now. To their political admirers it is, therefore, important, if not imperative, to see their candidate's ticket prevail this year.
Thus it is conceivable that voters may cast their ballots with the vice-presidential candidate of their party in mind almost as much as the presidential candidate.
Gore is both politically and personally close to President Clinton. He has carried out dozens of important assignments for the president - from being the Clinton administration's spokesman and activist on the environment to heading a commission on reducing the size of government.
Kemp, the Republican vice-presidential candidate, has fulfilled a special purpose in the current campaign. Like Gore, he is a familiar figure in American politics; he is identified by his work among minorities and the poor as Housing secretary - a voting bloc that Bob Dole is unfamiliar with. Kemp and Dole have never been personally or politically close, but Kemp is a reassurance to those who worry about Dole's age.
Generally, say the experts, there is little evidence that vice-presidential candidates make much difference in elections. Mr. Hess and James Thurber, a political scientist at American University (AU) here, both say that Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy's running mate in 1960, won Texas and persuaded the South in general to vote for a Northern Roman Catholic. Mr. Thurber's colleague at AU, Alan Lichtman, disputes even that one possible example of vice-presidential influence.
"Kennedy didn't need Texas," he argues. "He could have won with Illinois and without Texas."
It has been proved that dream teams - unbeatable tickets - can lose to a supposedly vulnerable opponent. Professor Lichtman points out that when George Bush named Dan Quayle as his running mate in 1988 almost everyone regarded the choice as a disaster.
The Democratic dream team that year was composed of a supposedly "brilliant" Massachusetts governor, Michael Dukakis, and one of the Senate's great Southern statesmen, Lloyd Bentsen of Texas. Messrs. Bush and Quayle won 422 electoral votes while the Democratic ticket garnered only 111.
In 1948 the dream team was Republican - Thomas Dewey, governor of New York and a celebrated racket-buster, and Earl Warren, governor of California. Their charisma was dazzling, their respective states heavily weighted with electoral votes. Their opponent was an embattled president, Harry Truman, whose Democratic Party had split into three irreconcilable factions at its convention.
Mr. Truman and his running mate, Sen. Alban Barkley, handily beat the supposedly unbeatable Republicans.
Originally, of course, there were no vice-presidential contenders on the ticket. The authors of the Constitution decreed that the runner-up in presidential elections would serve as vice president.
This led to a messy wrangle in 1800, when Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr received an equal number of votes. The 12th amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1804, required the Electoral College to vote separately for president and vice president.
At that point political parties were on the rise, and vice-presidential candidates were chosen to balance a ticket geographically or politically. With a few exceptions - notably John Tyler, Chester Arthur, and Theodore Roosevelt - most vice presidents who became accidental presidents were mediocrities.
Nowadays, presidential candidates personally name their running mates. Mr. Hess, of Brookings, points out one bizarre motive for choosing a vice-presidential candidate. "Richard Nixon renominated Spiro Agnew in 1973 even though, after four years, Nixon knew what a mediocrity Agnew was," Hess says.
The idea, apparently, was that Congress would have second thoughts about impeaching Nixon when it realized that Mr. Agnew would succeed to the presidency. Agnew, however, was forced to resign before impeachment proceedings against Nixon got under way.
None of these complications or machinations are evident in this year's vice-presidential choices. Gore and Kemp are both competent and articulate.
And that unusual implication - that tonight may be a warmup for the presidential race in the year 2000 - makes it possible that they will sway some among the large bloc of undecided voters.