Republican Mike Pence provided Donald Trump with a lesson in debate discipline as he prepares for his second showdown with Hillary Clinton this weekend.
Pence, Trump’s vice presidential running mate, repeatedly refused to take the bait from Democrat Tim Kaine on Tuesday night, delivering a steady performance that gave Republicans a respite after one of the worst weeks for Trump’s campaign.
In their only debate, Kaine sought to reinforce Clinton’s portrayal of the billionaire businessman as lacking the temperament and qualifications to be president, frequently interrupting Pence as he did so. But Pence mostly deflected Kaine’s attempts to get him to defend or agree with Trump’s most controversial positions and statements. In doing so, the former talk radio host showed the kind of discipline and stage presence Republicans have begged Trump to display.
Kaine, 58, was the more aggressive debater. The senator from Virginia repeatedly sought to tie Pence to Trump’s stances on issues including Russia, immigration and abortion. Pence, the governor of Indiana, mostly responded by staying on message with extended answers, even on controversial topics, often turning the topic back to Clinton.
The debate at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia, was held as Trump is trying to recover from the damage done by his shaky performance in the first presidential debate, his comments disparaging a beauty pageant winner’s weight and personal life, and a New York Times report that his 1995 tax return showed a nearly $1 billion loss that could have allowed him to avoid paying federal taxes for nearly two decades.
Any gains from the vice presidential debate could be short-lived, with the countdown clock already starting for the second of three debates for the top of the ticket on Sunday in St. Louis. Historically, voters aren’t much swayed by the bottom half of the presidential ticket.
Report on Taxes
Pence, 57, did defend Trump as the candidates tangled over the real estate mogul’s refusal to release his tax returns and the Times story, using almost the exact language Trump himself has used.
“Donald Trump is a businessman not a career politician," Pence responded. "His tax returns showed he went through a very difficult time but he used the tax code just the way it was supposed to be used and he did that brilliantly."
“So, it’s smart not to pay for our military?’’ Kaine replied. “It’s smart not to pay for our veterans? It’s smart not to pay for teachers?”
One way Pence avoided being put on the defensive was to deny or parse statements and positions Trump has taken, such as his past call for creating a deportation force to remove all undocumented immigrants. “That’s nonsense. That’s nonsense,” Pence said.
“He’s trying to fuzz up what Donald Trump has said,” Kaine said later in the debate when the immigration issue came up again. “This is one of these ones where you can just go to the tape on it and see what Donald Trump has said.”
At one point, Kaine showed his own strategy for the debate.
“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,”’ Kaine said. “And in all six cases, he’s refused to defend his running mate. And yet he is asking everybody to vote for somebody that he cannot defend.”
Pence responded that he’s "very, very happy to defend Donald Trump" and that most of what Kaine has alleged is "completely false and the American people know that."
The candidates also tangled on foreign policy, with Pence saying Clinton was the “architect’’ of President Barack Obama’s failed policy in Syria and Russia, causing Kaine to interrupt to say Trump praised Russia President Vladimir Putin.
“I must have hit a nerve here,’’ Pence said.
Pence decried Russia’s heavy-handed approach in Ukraine and elsewhere in the world and sidestepped or denied Trump’s often favourable comments about Putin. Kaine returned to it at several points.
“He loves dictators,’’ Kaine said. “He’s got kind of a personal Mount Rushmore: Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.”
Even with the vice-presidential nominees seated alone at a table with moderator Elaine Quijano of CBS News, the debate’s focus was on the historically unpopular candidates at the top of the tickets and the mistakes they’ve made. The candidates frequently interrupted each other and talked over Quijano. At points it sounded more like a cable television panel than a debate.
“I can’t imagine how Governor Pence can defend the insult-driven, selfish, me-first style of Donald Trump," Kaine said at one point.
“He says ours is an insult-driven campaign,” Pence retorted. “To be honest with you, if Donald Trump had said all the things that you said he said in the way you said he said them, he still wouldn’t have a fraction of the insults that Hillary Clinton levelled when she said that half of our supporters were a basket of deplorables. She said they were irredeemable, they were not America. It’s extraordinary.”
Clinton watched the debate from her home in Chappaqua, New York. Trump was watching from the Trump Hotel in Las Vegas and used Twitter to comment on the event as it occurred. Even there, the tweets stayed in relatively safe territory, mostly just praising Pence’s performance. "[email protected]_pence is doing a great job – so far, no contest!" Trump tweeted early on in the debate.
The candidates disagreed about the state of the economy, with Kaine defending the progress under the Obama administration and Pence focusing on slow growth and saying Clinton’s plans for additional spending and taxation would make matters worse.
“Fifteen million new jobs?’’ Kaine asked, adding that the poverty level and median income improved “dramatically’’ between 2014 and 2015.
“Honestly, Senator, you can roll out the numbers and the sunny side, but I got to tell you, people in Scranton know different,’’ Pence said, referring to the city in the battleground state of Pennsylvania. “People in Fort Wayne, Indiana, know different. I mean, this economy is struggling. The answer to this economy is not more taxes.’’
Pence evoked one of Republican President Ronald Reagan’s famous debate lines when Kaine promised to protect Social Security and said when Pence was in Congress, he was “the chief cheerleader for the privatisation’’ of the federal programme.
“There they go again,’’ Pence said. “All Donald Trump and I have said about Social Security is we’re going to meet our obligations to our seniors. That’s it.’’
Kaine made a personal distinction near the end of the debate between his Catholic faith, which opposes abortion, and public policy supporting the Roe V. Wade Supreme Court decision legalising it. Pence defended his stanch anti-abortion stance and condemned support even for what he called partial-birth abortion.
"Why don’t you trust women?’’ Pence asked. “Why doesn’t Donald Trump trust women to make this choice for themselves?"
As one of the most intense and polarised campaigns in modern American history enters its final five weeks, Pence and Kaine will both campaign on Wednesday in Pennsylvania, a state critical to Trump’s path to the White House.