What Republicans needed most from the vice presidential debate was a respite from bad news, at least momentarily. Mike Pence gave them that.
The Indiana governor, in his scrappy encounter with Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, came across as reassuring, reasonable and conservative in ways that, before Donald Trump came along, Republicans had grown to expect. After Trump’s own poor debate performance and subsequent behavior helped to lengthen Hillary Clinton ‘s edge in the poll, that came as a balm for nervous Republicans running for House and Senate seats.
Representing the ticket holding a clear lead, Kaine entered the debate under less pressure. Yet he followed an aggressive strategy nevertheless, sometimes to his detriment.
Known for his geniality by political friends and foes alike, Kaine repeatedly interrupted his rival by reciting derogatory statements by Trump about immigrants from Mexico and women, among others. More than once, moderator Elaine Quijano of CBS News chided him for doing so.
Pence’s strategy called for him to redirect attacks on Trump into jibes at the economic and foreign policy record of President Barack Obama and Clinton, who served as secretary of state in the incumbent’s first term. That allowed him to align the Republican ticket with the desire of discontented voters for change.
Polished by his past career as a radio talk show host and his years in Congress, Pence took an interesting approach to his running mate. In some cases, as when he talked tough on Russia and its President Vladimir Putin, he shrugged off Trump’s own statements and sought to redefine the ticket’s stance.
In others, he chuckled and expressed disbelief that Trump could have made the statements Kaine had quoted, and then declined to rebut them. That reaction matched that of politicians in both parties, and some voters, over the past year of watching Trump’s highly unorthodox campaign. But since Trump did in fact say those things, Pence provided post-debate openings for the Clinton campaign to document them.
No one in either party expects the debate to fundamentally alter a race that has consistently been driven by strong voter reactions to the controversial nominees atop the Democratic and Republican tickets. Tuesday’s face-off will quickly be eclipsed by the second Trump-Clinton debate on Sunday night in St. Louis.
One interesting question mark will be Trump’s personal reaction. Pence conspicuously passed up opportunities to defend Trump, and has drawn much stronger post-debate reviews that Trump received last week.
“Pence won overall, but lost with Trump,” a senior Trump adviser told me. “He can’t stand to be upstaged.”