ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- If voters seldom base their vote for president on their assessment of the vice-presidential nominees, why have a televised debate like the one tonight between Al Gore and Jack Kemp?
One answer is that in a very close race, any number of factors may tip the scales, and the identity of the presidential nominees' running mates may be one of them. But so far at least, the polls suggest this election does not figure to be all that close.
Some political wise men and historians say John Kennedy's choice of Lyndon Johnson in 1960 enabled the ticket to win the South, and with it the election. Others suggest, less persuasively, that vice-presidential candidate Bob Dole's mean-spirited and flippant debate performance against Walter Mondale cost Gerald Ford the 1976 election. If any one factor undid Ford, however, it more likely was his pardon of Richard Nixon.
In most cases, the running mates are irrelevant to voters' behavior at the ballot box. In 1988, Lloyd Bentsen's unforgettable remark to Dan Quayle that ''you're no Jack Kennedy'' left Mr. Quayle looking foolish, but George Bush, was elected over Michael Dukakis anyway.
Mr. Bush's own lackluster vice-presidential debate with Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, in which he patronizingly offered to ''help you understand'' an issue that had been raised and was slapped down by her, didn't impede the re-election of his political benefactor, Ronald Reagan.
Still, vice-presidential debates are by no means useless. Ever since Harry Truman's succession to the presidency in 1945, the subsequent assumptions by Johnson and Ford of the presidency and the near-succession of Vice President Bush when President Reagan was shot, there has been a compelling reason for voters to know who these individuals are, and to assess them.
The country apparently is not yet ready to punish a presidential nominee at the polls for selecting an unqualified running mate, but vice-presidential debates at least give a reason for a presidential candidate to think twice before choosing someone who might jeopardize his own election chances with an embarrassing performance in debate.
In 1988, Mr. Bush either did not foresee that Mr. Quayle's weak qualifications to be president might be exploited in debate or did not care. But four years later, Bill Clinton clearly had the Quayle experience in mind and was determined to avoid it by picking the articulate and knowledgeable Mr. Gore.
The same was true in Senator Dole's selection this year of Mr. Kemp, a man seasoned in debating the economic policies that are certain to be a centerpiece of tonight's debate. The television audience is likely to be treated to a substantive, issue-driven debate of the sort critics always say they want.
Putting these two policy wonks on a stage together for 90 minutes may well produce glazed eyes around the country. Mr. Kemp is the Republican high priest of laissez-faire, supply-side economics, and Vice President Gore can effectively make the Democratic textbook case for interventionist government.
The first Clinton-Dole debate drew a clear line between their approaches to government activism -- Mr. Clinton for more of it to address unmet needs, Mr. Dole for greater reliance on individual, entrepreneurial initiative. Messrs. Gore and Kemp can flesh out that difference, and at the same time with serious debate performances provide a basis for voters to feel that the country will be in good hands if either of them is called on by fate to take over the presidency.
Unlike the presidential debates, where a weak performance can affect how people vote, who ''wins'' and who ''loses'' the vice-presidential debate will not be too important in shaping voting behavior on election day. But an informative and engaging exchange of basic views, and a display of competence by the two debaters, should be reassuring in an era when the vice presidency has become a prime stepping-stone to the presidency.
rTC Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 10/09/96