Indiana Gov. Mike Pence just showed Republicans how they could be winning the election in a walk.
At the first and only vice presidential debate, Donald Trump’s No. 2 ably prosecuted the case against Hillary Clinton and articulated a relatively coherent conservative alternative. And the former radio talkshow host remained composed as he did so, despite repeated interruptions by Democratic Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine aimed at knocking him off balance and forcing him to defend Trump’s most outrageous statements.
Which is to say, on style if not entirely on substance, Pence won.
It’s doubtful, however, that his performance will move votes or meaningfully reset the trajectory of a race trending strongly against the Republican ticket. (For that, tune in on Sunday, when Clinton and Trump meet for a rematch of the showdown that sent the GOP campaign into a tailspin.) Vice presidential debates as a rule don’t tend to sway campaign outcomes. And both of the candidates this year—each with long careers in public service, including stints in Congress and leading their home states—meet the fitness threshold that’s the only real demand of those filling out tickets.
Kaine had the easier assignment heading into the night. With the Trump campaign reeling, and Team Clinton padding leads in swing states across the map, the Harvard-trained lawyer needed to press home doubts about Trump’s record and his suitability for office. Kaine stayed on that task throughout the night, repeatedly trying to make Pence answer for his running mate’s refusal to release his tax returns, his insults about women and minorities, and his business ties to Russia.
Pence deflected mostly either by disputing, falsely, that Trump ever uttered what Kaine quoted him as saying or by ignoring the charge altogether. What Pence did not do was mount a consistent, full-throated defense of Trump’s statements and positions — a fact that had some speculating his performance amounted more to an early audition for 2020 than a good-faith attempt to salvage the ticket. And indeed, a CNN/ ORC poll of debate watchers found that while those who tuned in believe Pence won overall, 48-42, they gave Kaine the edge, 58-35, on doing a better job defending his running mate.
Kaine, who came off jumpy and over-prepared from the start, stuck to a script. After reciting a Trump outrage, he would follow up by insisting he couldn’t imagine how Pence could defend it. The strategy evidently aimed to put the polished pol in a box: Trip over trying to rationalize statements he finds anathema or leave Trump high and dry by disowning them. Pence chose a third option — denying that Trump had even made the comments. The tack finally prompted Kaine to try forcing the question: “Six times tonight, I have said to Governor Pence I can't imagine how you can defend your running mate's position on one issue after the next. And in all six cases, he's refused to defend his running mate.” But Pence replied that he’d be “very, very happy to defend Donald Trump. If he wants to take these one at a time, I'll take them one at a time.” So Kaine asked him to defend Trump’s call for more nations to get nuclear weapons, but once again, Pence dodged, “He never said that, Senator.” Kaine correctly pointed out that Trump had indeed mused about the benefits of Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Japan getting the bomb. Again, Pence ducked, “Most of the stuff you’ve said, he never said.”
Pence solved his Trump problem by creating instead an altogether different running mate. In Pence’s conjuring, the Republican presidential nominee is a small-government conservative, committed to projecting American power abroad and preserving traditional values at home — one, in short, who looks a lot like Pence himself. The plywood propping up that Potemkin construction was most visible on the subject of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Trump has roundly praised the dictator, after Putin said favorable things about Trump — and the both the businessman and at times his senior campaign leadership have extensive ties to Kremlin-backed interests. Pence denied Trump has made fawning assessments of Putin’s leadership. “This whole Putin thing,” he said in mock exasperation when Kaine pressed the point. “When Donald Trump and I observe that, as I've said in Syria, in Iran, in Ukraine, that the small and bullying leader of Russia has been stronger on the world stage than this administration, that's stating painful facts. That's not an endorsement of Vladimir Putin.”
When they weren’t arguing over basic facts, Kaine and Pence frequently appeared to be narrowcasting to their respective bases. On the charged issue of racial bias in policing, Kaine said leaders need to grapple with institutional problems that leave minority communities feeling targeted; Pence suggested Democrats have inflated those problems for political gain, undermining cops. On immigration, Kaine said a Clinton administration’s top priority would be keeping families together; Pence embraced Trump’s signature call for deporting undocumented immigrants and securing the border. On abortion, Kaine talked up the importance of preserving a woman’s right to choose; Pence talked up the sanctity of life.
Late in the debate, an exchange on the last issue brought forward one of the sharper clashes of the night. Kaine, arguing that the Republican ticket’s position on abortion is dangerously retrograde, invoked a remark by Trump that women who get the procedure illegally should face punishment. Pence finally acknowledged that Trump had said what he said, allowing that “he's not a polished politician like you and Hillary Clinton.” Kaine pounced, repeating a litany of Trump’s insults, including his characterization of Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals. The Clinton campaign is likely already mining Pence’s flip reply — “Senator, you've whipped out that Mexican thing again” — for targeted ads. To that extent, while Kaine may have lost in a head-to-head reckoning, his ability to stoke some outrage in key Democratic demographics could redeem his effort. Heading into its final stretch, the race will become increasingly focused on turning out those voters already convinced than winning undecided hearts and minds.