Farmville, Va. — On Tuesday night, Mike Pence managed to do what Donald Trump could not. In his first and only debate against Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine, the Indiana governor delivered a calm and on-message performance. Where Trump, in his first debate last week, came off as maniacal, Pence was cool and collected. Where Trump found himself insulting a former beauty queen and Rosie O’Donnell, Pence stuck to the script. Where Trump veered onto tangents, missing easy opportunities to attack Clinton, Pence did the opposite, turning most questions into opportunities to hit the Democratic ticket.
The result was a performance that left Republican surrogates praising Pence as a better justification for Trump’s candidacy than Trump himself — proof that the nominee makes good decisions and surrounds himself with qualified people.
“It showed why Donald Trump should be our next president: He surrounds himself with really smart people, and on the very first big decision he had to make in picking a running mate, he couldn’t have done a better job in picking Mike Pence,” said Sara Huckabee Sanders, a spokeswoman for Trump, after the debate.
Clinton surrogates were quick to point out that Tuesday’s showdown may have done little to help either side. Many Republicans have been vocal about the fact that they feel far more comfortable with Pence than with Trump, and tonight only reinforced that feeling. But both Pence and Kaine found themselves submerged in a sloppy and unsavory affair, from Kaine’s constant interjections to Pence’s untruthful defenses of Trump to moderator Elaine Quijano’s shaky refereeing.
The tone was set with the second question of the night, when Quijano asked Kaine why the majority of Americans believe Clinton is untrustworthy. After briefly discussing Clinton’s “passion” for working with children, Kaine pivoted to highlight Trump’s infamous comment about illegal Mexican immigrants being “rapists” and “murderers,” before concluding that he “can’t imagine” how Pence would defend such remarks. Pence responded first by saying that Clinton had overseen a failed foreign policy that had emboldened adversaries such as Russia. He was then interrupted by Kaine, who took the opportunity to argue that the GOP ticket “loves” Vladimir Putin. When Pence continued on to tout his running mate’s “business acumen,” Kaine interrupted to point out that Trump paid few taxes and lost nearly $1 billion in 1995. When Pence turned to the Clinton Foundation, Kaine began talking over him.
This back-and-forth continued for several minutes until Quijano finally moved the two men to the next subject, establishing a pattern for the evening: Kaine using nearly every question to launch attacks on Trump for his past statements; Pence accusing the Democratic ticket of running an insult-driven campaign; Kaine interrupting to clarify that he was merely quoting Trump and daring Pence to defend his running mate; Pence arguing that Trump had either been taken out of context or had not said a specific thing at all; Kaine interrupting again to ask Americans to “go to the tape” and see the remarks for themselves; Pence asserting that this was his time and attempting to finish his thought; and finally, Quijano jumping in and lurching the stilted discussion slowly and painfully forward.
Rinse and repeat.
There were no blockbuster, made-for-TV moments to remember. But perhaps the most lasting impression from the night will be of a contrast in style. Kaine, as Clinton spokeswoman Karen Finney said after the debate, did what vice-presidential nominees are expected to do: “I don’t like the phrase ‘attack dog,’ but your job is to stand up for your running mate.” It was a role in which the Virginian, known for his suburban-dad-like affability, appeared to be uncomfortable and rather ineffective.
“I thought Tim Kaine sounded a little silly and frankly sounded like he needed maybe three fewer cups of coffee, cause he sounded a little too animated there, a little bit too like a yapping puppy dog at someone’s ankle. Someone needs to calm him down,” said Representative Jeb Hensarling, a friend of Pence’s who was in the spin room for him.
Meanwhile, Pence, the onetime radio host, was measured and steady throughout, shaking his head and delivering his attacks with a smile on his face. He good-naturedly jabbed Kaine for his mechanically rehearsed one-liners and opposition-research dumps.
The result was a performance that left Republican surrogates praising Pence as a better justification for Trump’s candidacy than Trump himself.
Clinton campaign surrogates, spinning after the debate, made only half-hearted attempts to argue that their man had won. Instead, they said, Pence had failed to do enough to change the narrative that emerged from Trump’s problematic first debate.
“I think the VP debate matters in the sense that if you are losing, like Trump and Pence did, you need to change the trajectory of the campaign by some means, and they weren’t able to do that. So I think that’s a victory for the Clinton team,” said Representative Ruben Gallego, who was in the spin room as a surrogate for Kaine.
That is not to say Kaine was without strong moments. His greatest success was to doggedly prosecute Trump’s record of offending various groups — from women to veterans to minorities — and aggressively goad Pence into defending them. “I can’t imagine how you defend your running mate’s position,” he repeatedly told Pence.
Kaine’s persistence paid off on several occasions, most notably when Pence denied that both he and Trump had said Putin is a better leader than President Obama. But Pence’s strategy, for the most part, was to deflect such attacks rather than tackle them head on.
Quite often, Pence seemed to be blissfully campaigning in an alternate universe from the one Trump inhabits. He repeatedly described the Clinton-Kaine campaign as “insult-driven,” a laughable remark coming from someone whose running mate has made an art of the insult over the course of this campaign. Other times, he simply ignored Kaine’s calls to defend Trump. Much had been made of the fact that this would be the first debate since the New York Times published a year of Trump’s tax returns, making Pence the first line of defense against a story that could be very bad for the Republican nominee. Pence said some kind words about his running mate as a businessman who complied with the tax code. And then he declined to address the subject again.
“Why won’t he release his tax returns?” Kaine blurted out at one point.
“Well, we’re answering a question about the business thing,” Pence replied calmly, brushing off the question.
When Kaine brought up Gonzalo Curiel, a US-born federal judge from Pence’s home state of Indiana whom Trump deemed too biased to rule in a lawsuit against Trump University because of his Mexican heritage, Pence simply ignored the remark and moved on.
#related#Pence’s strategy of moving the conversation to safer ground earned him style points and credit for staying on message, but it also opened him up to easy attacks from Clinton’s camp. “Why is it that Mike Pence can’t defend his own running mate? Maybe he doesn’t know who his own running mate is,” suggested Clinton spokeswoman Karen Finney following the debate.
It was evident in the spin room that Pence had reassured Republicans who remain ill-at-ease with the party’s nominee. But for the Indiana governor, who harbors presidential ambitions of his own, Trump could prove somewhat problematic down the road. At one point, he declared that he “could not be more proud to stand with Donald Trump.” Should Hillary Clinton win in November, Pence will undoubtedly find himself in the top tier of prospective Republican candidates to challenge her four years from now, and that is a comment that may well come back to haunt him.