Donald Trump’s weeklong slide in the presidential race started when he showed up to the first debate unprepared and spoiling for a fight. On Tuesday evening, Mike Pence helped slow it by doing the opposite.
Calm and measured, Pence showed off his preparation for his vice-presidential showdown with Democrat Tim Kaine, fending off a slashing, interrupting opponent. The Indiana governor prepared for the debate “since the night he received the call from Mr. Trump,” a campaign aide told ABC News, enlisting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker as Kaine’s stand-in during practice sessions last week.
While a marked contrast with Trump’s shaky first debate with Democrat Hillary Clinton, Pence’s steady performance, which came after a dismal week of self-inflicted wounds and flagging poll numbers for the Trump campaign, may not have led the Republican ticket any closer to the White House.
Forty-eight percent of voters who watched said Pence won the debate while 42 percent said Kaine won, a CNN poll found. In an Ohio focus group for CBS News by Republican pollster Frank Luntz, 22 participants said Pence won while just four said Kaine won, though when he asked how many would change their votes as a result, the answer was zero. Pence took up a larger share of the debate conversation than Kaine on Twitter and Facebook, the companies said.
Pence, 57, held command of Tuesday’s debate, coolly turning aside attacks with broad brush strokes while avoiding specific rebuttals to broadsides against the character of his running mate. While many Republicans would like Pence’s demeanor to serve as a blueprint for when Trump debates Clinton for a second time on Sunday, the contrast between the two Republicans remains unavoidable.
“I feel like we now need a Pence-Trump debate on Russia. Because I've never heard such diverse views,” Brian Walsh, a former Senate Republican leadership aide, said on Twitter.
Walsh was referring to an exchange about Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Pence called a “small and bullying leader” whose provocations “need to be met with American strength,” even though Trump has praised Putin as as strong and effective, even stronger than President Barack Obama by comparison.
“I'm very, very happy to defend Donald Trump,” Pence insisted at another point. “If he wants to take these one at a time, I'll take them one at a time.”
Kaine shot back, “‘More nations should get nuclear weapons.’ Try to defend that.” Pence jumped in: “Well, he never said that, Senator.” Kaine replied, “He absolutely said it. Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Japan.”
Kaine made his point, but the debate moved on, and Pence, unlike when Trump seemed unmoored by Clinton’s attacks, seemed largely unfazed by the exchange.
Pence largely avoided defending Trump's calls for mass deportation, restricting Muslim immigration, opposing any Social Security benefit cuts, declaring federal judge Gonzalo Curiel unqualified to do his job, suggesting NATO is obsolete, or saying countries like Japan and South Korea should be able to acquire nuclear weapons. Kaine, following Clinton's lead, also hit Trump for feuding with a former Latina beauty queen, for saying Senator John McCain wasn't a war hero, and for saying Mexico is sending “rapists” across the U.S. border.
Conservative elites were considerably warmer to Pence than they were to Trump last week. House Speaker Paul Ryan had gushing praise for him on Tuesday night, saying he couldn't be prouder of him for articulating “a strong view of the conservative principles that drive our party.” Ryan didn't say the same for Trump after the first debate, instead issuing a more tepid statement praising his “energy” and calls for change.
“Boy, I could vote for the Donald Trump who exists in Mike Pence’s mind. I just can’t vote for the actual Donald Trump,” conservative talk-radio host Erick Erickson said on Twitter.
Pence could have won the debate but failed Trump, said Joel K. Goldstein, a law professor and expert on the vice presidency at the St. Louis University School of Law.
“Governor Pence's way of defending Trump was to attack Clinton,” said Goldstein. “Kaine was making the point that what Trump has done is indefensible and even Pence can't defend him.”
Kaine, chided by the moderator for interrupting Pence dozens of times, goaded his rival to defend Trump. “He's asking people to vote for somebody he cannot defend,” Kaine, 58, said.
Pence responded with serene head-shakes and mumbles of “that's nonsense,” saying he was “happy to defend” Trump as a businessman rather than “a polished politician like you and Hillary Clinton.”
Trump’s son Eric downplayed differences between his father and Pence, telling CNN after the debate that Pence represented the Trump family and the Republican Party “incredibly well.”
“The person who really lost this debate was Donald Trump” because Pence refused to defend him, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook countered, speaking to reporters in the so-called spin room after the debate. “I think Donald Trump must be sitting there very frustrated.”
Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, speaking on MSNBC on Wednesday, denied suggestions that Trump was annoyed that Pence’s performance was getting higher marks than his did.
The Kaine-Pence debate is unlikely to change the overarching dynamics of the 2016 presidential election, with both figures vastly overshadowed by their deeply unpopular celebrity running mates. (Kaine and Pence each mentioned their running mates by name more times than any other No. 2 candidates since the vice-presidential debates started in 1976, according to a transcript analysis.) Though Pence came off as more measured, patient, and respectful, Kaine's antsy performance may keep the focus on Trump's controversies in the coming days.
Goldstein said Kaine seized on this in a way that reminded him of the 1992 vice-presidential debate, when Republican Dan Quayle repeatedly attacked Bill Clinton's character, then noted in his closing remarks that his rival Al Gore “never answered my charges that Bill Clinton has trouble telling the truth.”
“Pence had the harder assignment in that he had more to defend” and “in terms of his debating style he was better,” Goldstein said. “But I don't think that he really left anything memorable that people will be talking about in the next couple days. It's hard for me to see where Pence is going to attract new votes.”
Pence showed his only flash of irritation in the final moments of the 90-minute debate, when Kaine called on him to defend Trump's attack on Mexican immigrants. “Senator,” Pence said, “you whipped out that Mexican thing again.”
Pence noted that Trump also said some of the immigrants are “good people.”
—With assistance from Toluse Olorunnipa, Ben Brody, and Bloomberg Politics contributor Adam Tiouririne