In a fiercely combative vice presidential debate Tuesday night, Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence had the same target in their sights.
That would be Donald Trump.
Kaine’s primary mission, as it has been since the Virginia senator was tapped for the Democratic ticket, was to denounce Trump’s rhetoric, résumé and general fitness for the Oval Office. Pence blasted Clinton’s trustworthiness and her record, but he also found himself repeatedly defending Trump against incoming fire from Democrats — and trying to reassure Republicans who are anxious about their presidential nominee.
After a disastrous week for Trump since he and Clinton faced off at their first debate, a smooth and folksy Pence dealt with the aftermath of everything from Trump’s tweetstorm against a former beauty queen to the disclosure of a billion-dollar business loss that may have meant Trump didn’t pay federal income taxes for close to two decades.
“He’s not a polished politician like you and Hillary Clinton,” Pence said dismissively when Kaine pressed a litany of provocative and controversial statements Trump has made. But Pence dodged demands that he explain or defend them with specificity, and at several points he denied Kaine’s accurate description of Trump’s comments on Russian President Vladimir Putin, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and abortion.
Instead, he accused Clinton and President Obama of a “weak and feckless foreign policy” that had endangered America around the world. He tied the former secretary of State to what he called a failed health care system and an economy that has failed many working people.
For his part, an assertive Kaine noted in his opening comments that he and his wife were ready to trust Clinton with the life of his son, a Marine on active duty. “But the thought of Donald Trump as commander in chief scares us to death,” he said.
When Pence decried what he called an “avalanche of insults” from the Democratic campaign, Kaine replied: “I’m just saying facts about your running mate.”
“Six times tonight I have said to Gov. Pence I can’t imagine how you can defend your running mate’s position,” he said in his closing remarks. “He is asking everybody to vote for somebody that he cannot defend.”
The debate at Longwood University in Farmville, Va., moderated by Elaine Quinjano of CBS News, was the first time the two men had met in person. Despite their reputations for personal affability, both repeatedly jumped in to interrupt and challenge one another, at times mockingly.
Pence displayed his skills as the unflappable radio talk-show host he once was, working in references to the small town in southern Indiana where he grew up and his admiration for his uncle, a big-city cop. Kaine seemed less relaxed and more aggressive.
But he may have succeeded in his fundamental goal to make the debate focus largely on Trump — who didn’t exactly stay off-stage. He was tweeting the debate from his hotel in Las Vegas.
Until a final question on the role their religion has played in their public lives, what the vice presidential candidates talked about only in passing were their own records and positions.
In a campaign that has been turned upside-down in so many ways, count the role of the running mates as one more. In previous elections, they have been unleashed as the attack dogs, letting the candidates at the top of the ticket take the high road. This time, the presidential contenders themselves at their first debate last week engaged in attacks more scathing than any in a national campaign in decades.
There’s another way in which this campaign has cast a vice presidential candidate in an unusual role. More than any surrogate or the candidate himself, Pence has been reassuring the GOP base that despite Trump’s uneven policy record and provocative personal actions, the billionaire businessman can and should be trusted with the Oval Office.
In the past, it was the presidential candidate who at times had to defend his running mate: Think John McCain and Sarah Palin in 2008, for instance, or George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle in 1988.
Both Pence and Kaine went into the debate with favorability ratings that are narrowly positive, compared with ratings for Clinton and Trump that are net negative by double digits.That's not say their ratings are particularly glowing: Pence is at 37% favorable-31% unfavorable, Kaine at 31%-30%, according to the HuffPost Pollster aggregation of recent surveys.
Of course, that means about a third of those surveyed say they don't know enough about them to have an opinion, one way or the other. But then, this election isn’t really about them. And Trump and Clinton will be back on stage for their second debate on Sunday in St. Louis.