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Mike Pence Has the Toughest Job in Politics Tonight

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: Gov. Mike Pence
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence gives a campaign speech at Kenworth Of Pennsylvania in Dunmore, Pa., on Sept. 14, 2016.Jake Danna Stevens / The Times-Tribune via AP

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

Mike Pence’s tough challenge in tonight’s VP debate

We don’t envy the task in front of Republican Mike Pence in tonight’s vice-presidential debate. Not only does he have to defend the controversies from Donald Trump’s brutal week (the taxes, Alicia Machado, the 3:00 am tweetstorm), but he also has to defend Trump on issues where the two men are at odds. Indeed, before Pence became Trump’s running mate, he:

  • Opposed Trump’s Muslim ban: “Calls to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. are offensive and unconstitutional.” (Tweet)
  • Supported the TPP trade agreement: “Trade means jobs, but trade also means security. The time has come for all of us to urge the swift adoption of the Trans Pacific Partnership” (Tweet)
  • Voted for the Iraq war authorization (2002 roll call vote)
  • Praised NAFTA: "As the nation's sixth-largest corn producer, Indiana benefitted directly under the North American Free Trade Agreement...(2001 House floor speech)

Folks, those aren’t ordinary campaign issues; they are CENTRAL to Trump’s candidacy. What’s more, Pence has often been running a parallel campaign to Trump’s. As NBC’s Benjy Sarlin points out, Pence issued a statement praising the Khan family during Trump's feud’s with them; he has denounced “name-calling” in this race; he acknowledged President Obama’s birthplace before Trump did; and he released his taxes (while Trump hasn’t). So if tonight’s debate is about Trump, Pence is going to have a tough time. But if it’s about normal D-vs.-R issues, then things might be a little easier for him.

Kaine’s own challenge: He can’t let Pence normalize the debate

While Pence certainly has the harder task tonight, don’t think that Democrat Tim Kaine’s is simple. Every time that Pence will want to talk about traditional issues, Kaine will have to turn the conversation back to Trump. “No, let’s talk about fat-shaming.” “Let’s talk about the Muslim ban.” “Let’s talk about Trump not releasing his taxes.” Kaine can’t let Pence normalize the debate. In fact, both Kaine and Pence are about the two most traditional Democrats and Republicans you could find -- in a campaign year that’s been anything but traditional.

About 30%-40% of voters don’t know who Kaine and Pence are

As Kaine and Pence face off tonight, here is one important reality: Many Americans don’t know who either man is. In the Sept. 2016 NBC/WSJ poll, 27% of registered voters said they didn’t know enough about Kaine to have an opinion of him, and 28% said the same about Pence. And in today’s national NBC|SurveyMonkey online tracking poll, 40% say they don’t know enough about Kaine, while 33% don’t know enough about Pence. Tonight’s VP debate takes place at Longwood University in Farmville, VA beginning at 9:00 pm ET. Kaine gets the first question.

A plethora of post-debate polls, and Clinton is ahead in all of them (with one exception)

In the last 24 hours, we’ve seen 10 post-debate polls -- either battleground state or national -- and with one exception, they all show Clinton leading Trump. The numbers:

A question: Is this real movement for Clinton? Or is this simply reverting where race has always been -- a durable lead for her?

Clinton, Trump duel over Trump’s 1995 tax return

In Ohio yesterday, Clinton seized on Trump’s 1995 tax return, and focused more on Trump’s nearly $1 billion loss. “What kind of ‘genius’ loses a billion dollars in a single year?” she asked. Meanwhile, Trump said, “I understand the tax laws better than almost anyone, which is why I am one who can truly fix them, I understand it, I get it, and that is what I commit to do, we want fairness, we want money brought in, and we want money to be spent when it goes out because they spend our tax dollars so unfairly and unwisely, remember that.”

U.S.-Russia relations further deteriorate over Syria

If this were a more traditional presidential race, Syria and Russia would be the biggest issues out there. “The United States on Monday suspended talks with Russia over the protracted conflict in Syria, accusing the Kremlin of joining with the Syrian Air Force in carrying out a brutal bombing campaign against the besieged city of Aleppo,” the New York Times writes. “Anticipating the end of the talks after repeated warnings from American officials, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia responded by withdrawing from a landmark arms control agreement that calls for each side to dispose of 34 tons of plutonium, a material used in nuclear weapons. The developments signaled the further deterioration of relations between the United States and Russia, which are now bitterly at odds over Syria, Ukraine and other issues.”

Ayotte points to Trump as a role model, then walks it back

Politico: “New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte said she ‘misspoke’ earlier Monday night when she said she would ‘absolutely’ point to Donald Trump as a role model for children. ‘I misspoke tonight,’ Ayotte wrote in a statement. ‘While I would hope all of our children would aspire to be president, neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton have set a good example and I wouldn't hold up either of them as role models for my kids.’” This is a race in which Ayotte has no margin for error, and she finds herself in a pickle -- while she can’t 100% embrace Trump, she can’t alienate Trump’s voters, either.

Anti-Trump group highlights Trump’s insults, controversies

Finally, a group opposed to Donald Trump's presidential candidacy is deploying eight ordinary Americans to highlight Trump's past insults and controversies in this presidential contest. The Not Who We Are campaign says these eight Americans -- including an American Muslim who served in the Marine Corps, a single mother who says she was taken advantage of by Trump University, and a disability-rights advocate who has cerebral palsy -- will speak out against Trump in key battlegrounds. The campaign is calling these eight individuals "The All Americans." Here’s more about the campaign.

On the trail

Hillary Clinton campaigns in Pennsylvania, hitting Haverford at noon ET and then Harrisburg at 3:45 pm ET… Donald Trump holds a rally in Prescott Valley, AZ at 5:00 pm ET… Elizabeth Warren stumps for Clinton in Las Vegas, NV… Bernie Sanders campaigns in Minnesota… Bill Clinton is in Ohio, while Michelle Obama makes two stops in North Carolina.

Countdown to second presidential debate: 5 days

Countdown to third presidential debate: 15 days

Countdown to Election Day: 35 days