The presence of Sarah Palin adds piquancy to Thursday’s eighth debate between running mates, but would break with the past if it makes a difference on election night.
Vice-presidential jousts have produced memorable moments but the perceived “winner” has generally ended on the losing side.
In 1988, for example, Dan Quayle was rattling on about how he had as much experience as John F Kennedy had when he was elected president in 1960.
That caught the attention of Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, his patrician Democratic opponent. “Senator,” Mr Bentsen countered. “I served with Jack Kennedy; I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
Geraldine Ferraro was reckoned to have done pretty well against vice President George H W Bush in 1984. After he had suggested she needed a world geography lesson, she countered: “I almost resent your patronizing attack. Please don’t categorize my answers. Leave interpretation to the people.”
Sadly for her, the people did, and Mr Bush got a second term as Ronald Reagan’s number two.
Bob Dole, who was around politics for ever, was well known as a funny, but sometimes nasty, man. He allowed his dark side to triumph in the inaugural debate against Walter Mondale in 1976 in this unprompted assault: “I figured it up the other day. If we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it would be about 1.6m Americans, enough to fill the city of Detroit.”
He and Gerald Ford lost that year, but at least he has the consolation of knowing that the word “Democrat,” - not the official name of the opposition party, which is “Democratic” - has entered the Republican lexicon as a form of insult.
In 2004, John Edwards, John Kerry’s running mate, dipped his toes into the waters of controversy by raising the fact that one of Dick Cheney’s two daughters was a lesbian, presumably hoping this would offend the religious right. He did it artfully, saying he appreciated that the Cheneys nevertheless loved their daughter. But religious conservatives, for their part, clearly loved Cheney enough to return him to a second term as chief Rasputin.
Some vice presidential debates have also been, in truth, monumentally boring. In 1996, Al Gore and Jack Kemp discussed tax policy - which happened to be Mr Kemp’s obsession - so earnestly that only accountants understood a word they were saying.
Similarly, in 2000, Mr Cheney and Joe Lieberman held more of a conversation, as befitting political ancients, than a debate, each forswearing all negative attacks (in their later years, neither quite lived up to these promises).
Retired Admiral James Stockdale, the eccentric Ross Perot’s running mate, was not boring in debate with Mr Gore and Mr Quayle in 1992. But he was bemused. Only added at the last minute, he fiddled with his hearing aid and asked: ”Who am I? Why am I here?” That was about the sum of his contribution.
The audience went wild. But Mr Quayle ended up as vice president. Nobody, with the possible exception of Mr Quayle, has entered a debate with as many questions of competence and experience hanging over their head as has Ms Palin. Mr Quayle failed the test but wound up winning. Ms Palin can only hope to be as lucky.
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