First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
A split decision: Pence helped Pence, and Kaine helped Clinton
You have to give Republican presidential running mate Mike Pence credit. In what was a difficult assignment defending Donald Trump after a week of missteps and controversies, Pence was smooth and polished in his debate against Democratic VP nominee Tim Kaine. Indeed, Pence came out on top in the Kaine-vs.-Pence debate, with Kaine not winning any style points for his constant interruptions. But in the night's other debate -- Clinton vs. Trump -- it was Kaine who won, simply because Pence didn't defend (or didn't forcefully defend) Trump on not releasing his tax returns and on his controversial statements. "Six times tonight, I have said to Gov. Pence I can't imagine how you can defend your running mate's position on one issue after the next. 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." Ouch. Bottom line: Mike Pence helped Mike Pence, especially when viewed through a 2020 lens. But Tim Kaine helped Hillary Clinton more than Pence helped Trump.
Fact-checking the debate: Three times when Pence denied saying something that either he or Trump had actually said (or close to it)
And there's a very good chance that Democrats end up winning the post-debate spin war after looking at the tale of the tape. There were at least three times when Pence denied or questioned that either he or Trump said something they actually said.
KAINE: Donald Trump during his campaign has called Mexicans rapists and criminals. He's called women slobs, pigs, dogs, disgusting… He attacked an Indiana-born federal judge and said he was unqualified to hear a federal lawsuit because his parents were Mexican. He went after John McCain, a POW, and said he wasn't hero because he'd been captured… And he perpetrated this outrageous and bigoted lie that President Obama is not a U.S. citizen.
PENCE: To be honest with you, if Donald Trump had said all of the things that you've said he said in the way you said he said them, he still wouldn't have a fraction of the insults that Hillary Clinton leveled when she said that half of our supporters were a basket of deplorables. It's -- she said they were irredeemable, they were not American.
The record: When Trump announced his presidential bid, he said: "When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists." Trump did say a federal judge overseeing a lawsuit against him had a conflict of interest because of his Mexican heritage. Trump criticized McCain for being captured in war: "He's not a war hero. He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren't captured." And Trump did lead the "birther" crusade.
KAINE: Well, this is one where we can just kind of go to the tape on it. But Governor Pence said, inarguably, Vladimir Putin is a better leader than President Obama.
PENCE: That is absolutely inaccurate.
KAINE: And -- and -- and I just think a guy who praises...
PENCE: He said he's stronger -- he's been stronger on the world stage.
KAINE: No, he said leader. And if -- and I'll just say this, Governor.
PENCE: You just said better.
The record: Pence's original quote wasn't referring to the world stage, and he said that Putin has been a "stronger leader" than Obama. But he didn't say "better" leader. Here's what Pence has said: "I think it's inarguable that Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country. And that's going to change the day that Donald Trump becomes president." And here's what Trump has said on the matter: "Certainly, in that system, [Putin has] been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader."
PENCE: I'm very, very happy to defend Donald Trump. If he wants to take these one at a time, I'll take them one at a time.
QUIJANO: I will give you an opportunity to do that.
KAINE: More nations should get nuclear weapons. Try to defend that.
PENCE: Don't put words in my mouth. Well, he never said that, Senator.
The record: Back in a March debate, Trump did seem to suggest that more nations should have nuclear weapons, but he also appeared to contradict himself in the answer. The transcript:
TRUMP At some point we have to say, you know what, we're better off if Japan protects itself against this maniac in North Korea, we're better off, frankly, if South Korea is going to start to protect itself, we have…
COOPER: Saudi Arabia, nuclear weapons?
TRUMP: Saudi Arabia, absolutely.
COOPER: You would be fine with them having nuclear weapons?
TRUMP: No, not nuclear weapons, but they have to protect themselves or they have to pay us. Here's the thing, with Japan, they have to pay us or we have to let them protect themselves.
COOPER: So if you said, Japan, yes, it's fine, you get nuclear weapons, South Korea, you as well, and Saudi Arabia says we want them, too?
TRUMP: Can I be honest with you? It's going to happen, anyway. It's going to happen anyway. It's only a question of time. They're going to start having them or we have to get rid of them entirely.
And here's what Trump said in an April 3, 2016 Fox interview:
TRUMP: So, North Korea has nukes. Japan has a problem with that. I mean, they have a big problem with that. Maybe they would in fact be better off if they defend themselves from North Korea.
WALLACE: With nukes?
TRUMP: Maybe they would be better off -- including with nukes, yes, including with nukes.
Pence's statements on Putin and Syria will play into the weekend
What also was striking was how Pence referred to Putin as a "small and bullying leader" -- when Trump has never said those kind of words about the Russian president. And Pence even floated the idea of using U.S. military action to target the Assad regime - when Trump has never said that. "I just have to tell you that the provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength. And if Russia chooses to be involved and continue, I should say, to be involved in this barbaric attack on civilians in Aleppo, the United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike military targets of the Assad regime to prevent them from this humanitarian crisis that is taking place in Aleppo," Pence said.
The last 24 hours have been good for GOP downballot candidates
If anything last night, Mike Pence gave Republican downballot candidates a good roadmap how to talk about Trump: just step to the side. Maybe more importantly, GOP downballot candidates got a gift from Bill Clinton's critical comments on the federal health-care law.
Clinton maintains ad-spending advantage over Trump
Donald Trump and his allies are spending more and more over airwaves, but that amount is not enough to overcome Hillary Clinton's 4-to-1 ad-spending advantage, according to data from Advertising Analytics. Through this week, the Clinton campaign has spent $113 million on ads, versus $27 million for the Trump campaign. When outside groups are factored in, Team Clinton's ad spending stands at $189 million, compared with Team Trump's $50 million. That nearly 4-to-1 Team Clinton advantage over the airwaves is down from their 5-to-1 edge last month. In the battleground states, Team Clinton is outspending Team Trump through this week, $160 million to $44 million.
And here's a look at the battleground-state ad spending for just this week alone (Oct. 2-8):
On the trail
Donald Trump is in Nevada, where he holds rallies in Henderson at 2:30 pm ET and Reno at 6:30 pm ET… Tim Kaine campaigns in Philadelphia at 6:00 pm ET… Mike Pence stumps in Virginia and Pennsylvania… Bill Clinton makes two stops in Ohio… And Bernie Sanders campaigns for Clinton in Wisconsin, hitting Madison and Green Bay.
Countdown to second presidential debate: 4 days
Countdown to third presidential debate: 14 days
Countdown to Election Day: 34 days