ATLANTA -- The three candidates for vice president meet here tonight in a 90-minute nationally televised debate in which most of the political pressure is centered on incumbent Vice President Dan Quayle.
Mr. Quayle, Democratic vice presidential nominee Al Gore and retired Adm. James Stockdale, the running mate of independent presidential candidate Ross Perot, will confront one another for 90 minutes at 7 p.m. in a theater at Georgia Tech University.
The debate will give both Senator Gore and especially Mr. Stockdale a national audience far beyond anything they have experienced in the past.
But the consensus among professional politicians holds that nothing is likely to come out of the debate to affect the main event competition between the embattled President Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton. The lesson in both election results and polls is that voters base their decisions on presidential nominees, not their running mates.
Mr. Quayle, nonetheless, has something of a stake in the confrontation tonight, if only because it gives him the opportunity to replace the memory of him being put down so deftly by Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, the 1988 Democratic vice presidential candidate, when he compared himself to John F. Kennedy.
Mr. Quayle says he "lost" the 1988 debate with Sen. Bentsen in part because he crammed too hard on issues and spent too little time on his presentation.
This time, although he's held mock debates -- with New Hampshire Republican Sen. Warren Rudman impersonating Mr. Gore and a national security staff member playing Mr. Stockdale -- he's emphasizing style over substance in his preparations.
"Let's face it. It's how you come across on television" that counts, he says. "It's the comfort level."
He says he is hoping to get the ball rolling for Mr. Bush in the debate miniseries so that, in retrospect, analysts will look back on the vice presidential debate as a turning point in the race.
Mr. Quayle's advisers say that he is eager for an opportunity to undo the damage of the 1988 debate since this could well be the last time Mr. Quayle will be in the national spotlight.
One weapon Mr. Quayle apparently intends to use against Mr. Gore is the Democrat's book on the environment, "Earth in the Balance."
Republican conservatives see it as evidence of environmental extremism that costs American jobs. But Mr. Gore has been dealing with those charges throughout the campaign, largely by arguing that the United States is losing an opportunity to create jobs by failing to act as aggressively to develop technology to improve the environment as Germany and Japan have done.
Mr. Gore arrived here more than 24 hours ahead of the debate and spoke before about 2,000 supporters at a downtown rally in Woodruff Park. Reviewing the presidential debate in St. Louis, Mr. Gore told the partisan crowd that the president "came in fourth last night after [moderator] Jim Lehrer."
The decision to hold the predebate rally grew out of the recognition that the political context here is markedly different from what it was in either 1984 or 1988 -- that is, the Democratic ticket has an even or better chance of winning Georgia's 13 electoral votes Nov. 3.
The difference was reflected in the rally itself. Mr. Gore, his wife, Tipper, and Mr. Clinton's wife Hillary were introduced by Mayor Maynard Jackson of Atlanta and Gov. Zell Miller, an early backer of Bill Clinton.
The first rows of the audience were filled with a who's who of Georgia Democratic officeholders and candidates -- a sharp contrast with those previous campaigns in which local candidates avoided both Walter F. Mondale and Michael S. Dukakis.