Indiana Gov. Mike Pence fought to move the presidential race past Donald Trump’s recent stumbles and reignite Republican momentum during Tuesday’s vice presidential debate, the only one of the campaign, smoothing out some of Trump’s harshest assertions and even separating himself on some key issues.
His efforts were met with spirited resistance by Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, as they clashed repeatedly, often talking over each other and expressing irritation as they tried to frame the contest in their own terms.
Throughout the 90-minute exchange, Kaine, with an eye on the Democratic voters his campaign wants to mobilize, repeatedly cited inflammatory statements made by Trump. He often interrupted Pence to remind listeners of statements including Trump’s attack on a federal judge who has Mexican ancestry and his demeaning comments about women.
Pence sidestepped Kaine’s demands that he defend Trump’s views. Instead, he tried to set out conservative positions on issues, even if that sometimes meant taking stands that sharply contrasted with those of the man at the top of his ticket.
When Trump’s well-documented admiration for Vladimir Putin came up, Pence suggested Trump has always considered the Russian president a bully. When Kaine brought up Trump’s call for women who receive abortions to be punished, Pence said Trump — who later walked back the comment — would never support such a punishment.
Kaine also pointed out that Trump has said that more nations should have nuclear weapons. “He never said that,” Pence said. Kaine shot back: “He absolutely said that.”
The debate exhibited an unfamiliar side of the vice presidential nominees, staid elected officials who were recruited for the stabilizing influences they could bring to their tickets.
Pence offered no apologies for Trump’s background and conduct on the campaign trail. He suggested the recent disclosure that Trump may not have paid federal income taxes for nearly two decades merely showcased his business acumen.
“He went through a very difficult time, but he used the tax code just the way it’s supposed to be used and he used it brilliantly,” Pence said. “Donald Trump has created tens of thousands of jobs.”
Kaine responded with incredulity, noting Trump had bragged that his tax strategy showed he was smart. “So it’s smart not to pay for our military?” Kaine said. “It’s smart not to pay for our veterans? It’s smart not to pay for teachers? And I guess the rest of us who do pay for those things, I guess we’re stupid.
“I can’t imagine how Gov. Pence can defend the insult-driven, selfish, me-first style of Donald Trump,” Kaine said.
Moderator Elaine Quijano repeatedly had to play traffic cop, as neither candidate would yield and discussion descended into cross-talk.
Kaine prodded his rival the way Clinton did Trump on the debate stage last week, a face-off that appears to have caused damage to the Republican’s campaign. But Pence proved a more polished debater than his running mate, expertly turning the conversation back to Clinton’s shortcomings and refusing to let himself be rattled.
He seized on the controversy surrounding the Clinton Foundation, accusing Clinton of using it to sidestep rules designed to keep foreign citizens and nations from wielding influence in U.S. politics.
“There’s a reason why people question the trustworthiness of Hillary Clinton,” Pence said. “And that’s because they’re paying attention.”
Kaine defended the foundation’s work in combating AIDS and drug addiction, while arguing that Trump was the one who was compromised in dealing with foreign governments because his private business extends around the world and his refusal to release tax returns keeps Americans in the dark about potential conflicts.
The debate put on full display the animosity between the campaigns, but also their starkly contrasting ideologies.
One of the clearest examples was also one of the few in which the two candidates talked directly about their own beliefs, rather than those of their running mates.
On abortion, Kaine offered a lengthy explanation of why he feels it should be legal in most cases, though he personally opposes abortion.
“We really feel like you should live fully and with enthusiasm in the commands of your faith, but it is not the role of the public servant to mandate that for everybody else,” he said.
Pence questioned how people of faith like Kaine, who is Catholic, could support late-term abortions, which he called “anathema” to him.
Pence also took aim at Clinton’s and Kaine’s assessment that the criminal justice system is beset with institutional racism. “Senator, please, enough of this seizing every opportunity to demean law enforcement broadly by making the accusation of implicit bias every time a tragedy occurs.”
Kaine said such remarks reflected ignorance of a well-established societal scourge. “Those who say we should not be able to bring up or talk about bias in the system will never be able to solve the problem,” he said. “I can’t believe you are defending the position there is no bias.”
Pence was relentless in amplifying the overarching theme of the Trump campaign: that America’s economy and national defense have been severely weakened by the Obama administration and Americans cannot afford more of the same.
“The American people know that we need to make a change,” Pence said. “We see entire portions of the world … literally spinning out of control.”
Kaine did not flinch from his and Clinton’s embrace of Obama’s policies, and the role Clinton played in designing them. He said Clinton helped start the process to cut a deal to halt Iran’s pursuits of nuclear weapons and was a key member of President Obama’s national security team when Osama bin Laden was killed.
But Kaine also repeatedly brought back the conversation back to some of Trump’s most unrestrained comments during the campaign, as well as during his long career as a flamboyant businessman and entertainer.
Kaine recited Trump’s demeaning comments about Mexican immigrants, women and war hero John McCain, the Arizona senator. “If you want to have a society where people are respected and respect laws you can’t have somebody at the top who demeans every group that he talks about,” Kaine said.
When the debate turned to immigration, Kaine accused Pence and Trump of planning for a “deportation force” — a phrase Trump has used during the campaign — that would remove 16 million people from the country.
“They want to go house to house, school to school, business to business and kick out 16 million people,” Kaine said.
Pence called the description “nonsense.” He said his and Trump’s plan to strengthen the borders and aggressively enforce existing laws contrasts with the Democratic plan, which he labeled amnesty.
“They have a plan for open borders,” Pence said. “They call it comprehensive immigration reform on Capitol Hill. We all know the routine. It’s amnesty.”
Clinton has laid out a plan that would expand on Obama’s attempts to focus on deporting violent criminals and temporarily shield from deportation those who were brought to the U.S. as children or parents of U.S. citizens.
A strong performance by Pence was considered crucial for Trump because of his poor showing in last week’s first presidential debate and controversies that followed, including his insults of a Venezuelan American beauty queen, the disclosure of a tax filing that showed Trump may not have paid federal income taxes for 18 years and the suspension of his charity foundation announced this week by New York Atty. Gen. Eric Schneiderman.
Republicans were looking to the more disciplined and politically experienced Pence to shift the conversation to Trump’s core message that the middle class and working poor have been left behind by changes in the economy. Trump had some early success in his matchup with Clinton when he hammered her for some of the economic policies implemented by Democrats, which he argued caused massive job losses. But he quickly lost any advantage he had gained as he strayed off message and into boastful tangents, personal insults and interruptions.