When Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence debates his Democratic counterpart Tim Kaine Tuesday night, he will face the tougher challenge.

Pence will need to do his part to try to arrest Donald Trump's slide in the polls since the first presidential debate, while also demonstrating he can play a key conservative leadership role that will come in handy whether he is elected vice president or becomes part of the post-Trump GOP soul-searching that will surely take place if Hillary Clinton wins.

"He could either be our man inside a Trump administration," a Republican strategist said of Pence. "Or an early 2020 front-runner."

It's a delicate dance Pence has often had to perform since joining the ticket. While running mates often perform the attack dog role, he has often to soften Trump's rhetoric and reassure conservatives.

Even precocious 11-year-olds have noticed that Pence often plays good cop to Trump's bad cop.

Some Republicans are going so far as to urge Pence to go rogue, defending conservative policies and themes rather than Trump.

Former Jeb Bush chief strategist and Mitt Romney adviser David Kochel devoted a Wall Street Journal op-ed to the idea, arguing that Pence should contradict Trump on his tweets and tax returns.

"Win or lose in November," Kochel writes, "Mr. Pence could preserve his brand for future campaigns" if he delivered a closing statement that criticizes Trump and Clinton almost equally.

"Showing his independence wouldn't just be good for the voters; it could also be great for Mike Pence," he added. "He could win back some respect from people who think he made a mistake in joining this ticket. And he could make a critical difference for the ticket he represents."

"The only point being Pence wins if he makes this about Hillary's record," tweeted Republican strategist Sarah Isgur Flores. "And only way to do that is admit when Trump is wrong."

Both vice presidential nominees have had to harmonize their platforms with the top of the ticket. Kaine has moved further left on abortion to get on the same page with Clinton. Pence has tried to sound more like Trump on trade despite his record as a free trader both in Congress and as governor of Indiana.

Yet Kaine is a center-left politician who is a perfect fit for the Democratic Party's near-unanimous chorus supporting Clinton. Pence is the movement conservative Trump is not and is operating within a Republican Party that has been awkward in its fitful attempts to rally around the New York businessman.

The Pence pick was a rare unifying moment for the party, as the Hoosier was praised even by many Republican and conservative leaders who were at best reluctant passengers of the Trump train. Pence himself endorsed Ted Cruz ahead of the Indiana primary.

House Speaker Paul Ryan had hesitated to endorse Trump but said Pence "comes from the heart of the conservative movement."

"We need someone who is steady and secure in his principles, someone who can cut through the noise and make a compelling case for conservatism," Ryan said. "Mike Pence is that man."

"Great pick," Marco Rubio tweeted, adding that the Indiana governor was "rock solid."

Club for Growth President David McIntosh expressed hope Pence would "be effective in pulling the Republican ticket toward economic conservatism and limited government." The Club advertised against Trump during the primaries.

The question is whether Pence can preserve all this conservative goodwill while working for Trump, either on the campaign trail or in the White House.

Pence's stock with conservatives was falling even before he became Trump's running mate. After being one of the few congressional Republicans to actively resist big federal spending increases under President George W. Bush, he floated an immigration compromise that didn't go over well with conservatives. He caught significantly more friendly fire as governor of Indiana, after he was seen as capitulating on issues ranging from religious liberty to Common Core.

Could Pence's place on the ticket with Trump make him damaged goods with conservatives for the rest of his career?

It's a calculated risk Pence took when he decided to accept Trump VP offer, outraging a conservative intelligentsia that mostly hates the Republican nominee. If Trump wins, Pence will at some point be the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination. If he loses, Pence will be best positioned to unite Trump and Cruz voters — who made up 70 percent of the 2016 primary total — four years from now.

When Trump fell behind after the conventions, this didn't look like a good bet. Cruz was praised for his bold non-endorsement in Cleveland. Pence looked like he had surrendered Indiana's governorship for Trump's sinking ship.

Things could still end badly in November. But even with his current problems, Trump is still more competitive than he was in August. He has now shown at least twice he can erase Clinton's lead under the right circumstances. Cruz has since endorsed Trump, ceding the Never Trump mantle to lesser known lawmakers like Ben Sasse.

Nevertheless, Pence has more riding on this debate than his rival. All Tim Kaine has to do is show up and repeat his campaign's talking points about Clinton and Trump, with some occasional Spanish thrown in.

Pence has to preserve the viability of a trailing Republican ticket without forfeiting his own.