WASHINGTON — Republican Mike Pence won bipartisan plaudits for a calm and collected performance in the vice presidential debate. But Democrat Tim Kaine was claiming mission accomplished for forcing his opponent to confront —or not — Donald Trump’s long list of provocative remarks.
Pressed by Kaine to defend his running mate throughout the 90-minute debate Tuesday, Pence mostly dodged, sidestepped or let the moment pass by. He vouched for the billionaire’s tax history, but was less vocal when challenged about Trump’s temperament or his inflammatory words about women and President Barack Obama.
“I can’t imagine how Gov. Pence can defend the insult-driven, me-first style of Donald Trump,” said Kaine, the Virginia senator and Hillary Clinton’s No. 2.
Still, even Clinton’s team wasn’t claiming that Kaine had come out on top, despite the chest-puffing that usually follows a political debate. Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta said only that Kaine had succeeded in his “strategic mission” to challenge Pence to defend his controversial running mate.
“Gov, Pence was smooth, he seemed sort of likable, but he didn’t get the job done,” Podesta said Wednesday on MSNBC.
Both sides appeared willing to concede that the only debate between the vice presidential candidates was unlikely to alter the trajectory of the race. After all, this year’s rollicking presidential campaign has been all about the passionate emotions — positive and negative — that both candidates of the top of the ticket stir up for many American voters.
Yet for Republicans worried their voters won’t show up at the polls, Pence’s steady performance could help assuage concerns that this year’s Republican ticket has veered away from the party’s core beliefs. Pence, a former congressman and Indiana’s governor, is widely trusted by the Republican establishment and the party’s socially conservative base.
Kaine, typically relaxed and easygoing, went on the attack against Pence from the start, determined to make the showdown a referendum on Trump’s character. He slammed Trump for having called women pigs and slobs, and condemned the Republican nominee’s praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Pence frequently avoided taking the bait — a shrewd move for a conservative darling who could have eyes on the Oval Office himself if Trump loses in November. Instead, he sought to defuse the line of attack by arguing pre-emptively that it was the Democrats — not Trump — waging an insult-filled campaign.
He didn’t dispute reports that the businessman might not have paid any federal taxes for years as a result of suffering more than $900 million in losses in 1995. But he likened Trump’s situation to those of other Americans who have gone “through a very difficult time.”
“He used the tax code just the way it’s supposed to be used,” Pence said. “And he did it brilliantly.”
Kellyann Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, faulted Kaine for repeatedly interrupting Pence, and of “ignoring the female moderator,” Elaine Quijano of CBS News. She took particular issue with how often the Democrat had brought up Trump’s name.
“It was like he had a tic.” She spoke Wednesday on Fox News and MSNBC.
Five weeks from Election Day, the White House race appears to be tipping in Clinton’s favor. She was widely viewed as the winner of last week’s first presidential debate, rattling the real estate mogul with jabs about his business record, responding to his attacks with calm rejoinders, and sending him into a multi-day tailspin over comments he made about a beauty queen’s weight 20 years ago. New public opinion polls have shown her improving her standing in nearly all battleground states.
Pence was markedly more prepared and more detailed in his answers than Trump was on the debate stage. He was also more consistent in painting the Democratic ticket as career politicians unwilling to shake up Washington.
Yet any boost from Pence’s performance could be short-lived if Trump has another weak performance when he and Clinton meet Sunday in their second of three debates.
Kaine, too, defended his running mate’s weaknesses, chiefly the public’s questions about her honesty and trustworthiness. He said that while Trump was “selfish,” Clinton had devoted her career to helping children and families.
On national security, Kaine revived Trump’s frequently flattering comments about Putin, the Russian president.
“He loves dictators,” Kaine said. “He’s got like a personal Mount Rushmore: Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Moammar Gadhafi and Saddam Hussein.”
Pence tried to flip the tables by accusing Kaine’s running mate of stoking Russia’s belligerence.
“The weak and feckless foreign policy of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has awaked an aggression in Russia that first appeared in Russia a few years ago,” Pence said. “All the while, all we do is fold our arms and say we’re not having talks anymore.”
Pence stirred buzz on social media for saying, after Kaine’s repeated criticism of Trump’s comments on immigrants, “Senator, you’ve whipped out that Mexican thing again.”
Clinton’s campaign seized on the remark. Visitors to ThatMexicanThing.com are being redirected to Clinton’s campaign website
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