Indiana Gov. Mike Pence shook his head in disbelief. Hillary Clinton's running mate had just criticized the top of the Republican ticket for something he's said. That's not accurate, Pence responded.
The pattern was set at the beginning of the vice presidential debate Tuesday: Tim Kaine would bring up Donald Trump's past remarks and Pence would deflect them with denial or simply ignore them.
"I’m happy to defend him," Pence said at one point, before apparently thinking better of it. A full-throated defense never came.
In the debate hall at Longwood University in Virginia, the tactic helped keep the Republican No. 2 from getting bogged down litigating his boss' old comments. But it may come to cost the GOP ticket, as before the debate was over Clinton's team was already busy cutting side-by-side videos showing Trump, in fact, saying those things.
Early in the debate, Kaine brought up one key line of attack: Donald Trump has said that Vladimir Putin is a better leader than President Obama. The first time, Pence pivoted, arguing that Clinton's campaign has been "an avalanche of insults."
So, later in the debate, Kaine brought it up again, arguing that Putin was on Trump's personal "Mount Rushmore" of dictators.
"Oh, please," responded Pence. "Come on."
Kaine tried a third time. "Donald Trump, again and again, has praised Vladimir Putin," he said.
Pence still didn't bite.
He pressed further. "Governor Pence made the odd claim, he said inarguably Vladimir Putin is a better leader than President Obama," he said.
Pence finally had heard enough. "The small and bullying leader of Russia has been stronger on the world stage than this Administration, that's stating painful facts," Pence said. "That's not an endorsement of Vladimir Putin. That's an indictment of the weak and feckless leadership of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama."
It was telling that Pence's most forceful response came when Kaine finally pinned the Putin line on him. To some observers, it was a sign that the Indiana Governor's debate strategy was also designed to protect his own political future in the event of a Trump loss.
"There was a striking difference between the two all night. Kaine gamely recited talking points from the Clinton playbook, while Pence seemed intent on laying out the case for a Presidential candidacy—his own,” Republican strategist Joe Brettell said.
Focus groups indicated Pence had delivered the better night, but no one could argue that he enjoyed the grilling. Kaine, a former Virginia Governor who now represents the state in the Senate, was clearly ready to pounce. It took him just 45 words into the debate to turn to Trump, who was live-tweeting the VP debate from his resort on the Las Vegas Strip. “The thought of Donald Trump as Commander in Chief scares us to death,” Kaine said. Minutes later, he continued the pile-on: “Donald Trump always puts himself first.”
Pence sat and took the beating for Trump’s record. Trump won’t release his taxes, even after the New York Times reported that he personally lost almost $1 billion in a single filing and, quite likely, dodged federal income taxes in the next 18 years. (Pence had to turn his over to Trump as part of his vetting, and later released them to the public.) Pence did his best not to accept Pence’s charges that Trump is doing business with Russia. He tried to brush past Trump’s proposal to privatize Social Security in a 2000 book, but Kaine was ready with the rebuttal. “Go read the book,” Kaine said with a dagger-flashing smile.
Pence knew the night was going to be rough and braced himself. In debate practice, his pal Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was an aggressive stand-in for Kaine, but it’s one thing to prepare in a conference room and quite another to have it play out on national television. Pence left the debate stage looking every bit the badgered candidate he was, while Kaine seemed proud that he delivered what he sought to: an unyielding attack on Trump and Pence.
It was a strategy of a running mate who had decided his best bet on his political future was to lash himself tightly to the top of his ticket. Kaine sacrificed some of his own favorability at the debate in order to score as many points as he could against the other team.
But Pence, stuck playing defense, was not willing to do the same.