FARMVILLE, Virginia — For months, the buttoned-down conservatism of GOP vice presidential nominee Mike Pence has run on a parallel track to Donald Trump’s inflammatory populism. At Tuesday’s vice presidential debate at Longwood University here, the two trains finally threatened to collide — only to split in opposite directions instead.
Pence coolly and effectively laid out his case against his Democratic counterpart, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, who seemed flustered by Pence’s jabs at Hillary Clinton as he repeatedly attempted to interrupt. But Pence spent most of the nationally televised forum pressing his own agenda and not that of Trump, the GOP nominee whom Pence seemed to contradict at times and showed little passion in defending.
Pence’s obviously superior debating style should provide a welcome morale boost to Republicans depressed by Trump’s debate performance and largely disastrous days since. But Kaine’s persistence holding Pence accountable for Trump’s words — and Pence’s dissonance with Trump’s positions — guaranteed headlines Wednesday about their differences. In an especially notable exchange, Pence appeared to invent a new policy for the ticket on Syria and Russia that bore little resemblance to Trump’s prior statements.
With the second presidential debate just five days away, and an actual hurricane bearing down on the East Coast likely to blow away political headlines for the rest of the week, the battle of the understudies will probably do little to change the fundamentals of the campaign.
That’s good enough for Clinton, who has returned to a relatively comfortable lead in the polls this week. And it’s bad news for Trump who is running out of chances to disrupt the status quo between now and Nov. 8.
Perhaps torn between Trump’s ambitions in 2016 and his own future in 2020 or beyond, Pence seemed reluctant to follow his nominee to places that could threaten his standing with more mainstream Republicans. The debate, which showcased Pence’s considerable appeal to a broader audience than ever before, served as a lifeboat should the U.S.S. Trump go down.
He avoided or outright denied Trump’s rhetoric as Kaine repeatedly confronted him with his nominee’s old quotes — from saying John McCain was "not a war hero" to questioning the president's birthplace to attacking former Miss Universe Alicia Machado — throughout the course of the night.
"Six times tonight I have said to Gov. Pence I can’t imagine how you can defend your running mate’s position," Kaine said. "He is asking everybody to vote for somebody that he cannot defend."
Rather than back up Trump, Pence seemed more content turning the tables. He said Clinton ran on an "avalanche of insults" and criticized her claim that half of Trump supporters as "deplorable." Kaine noted that Clinton had expressed regret for saying "half," a stark contrast with Trump’s refusal to apologize for a long litany of his own insults.
Trump, for his part, retweeted a supporter during the debate who said Kaine "‘looks like an evil crook out of the Batman movies."
Pence calmly explained Trump would release his tax returns after an IRS audit, and he countered Kaine for invoking Trump’s reference to Mexican immigrants as "rapists," noting Trump had also said some were "good people."
"Senator, you whipped out that Mexican thing again," Pence said.
"Can you defend it?" Kaine countered, summing up the dynamic for the night.
The gap between Pence and Trump isn’t entirely a new development. During the campaign, Pence has denounced "name-calling" while Trump tweeted out insults; Pence has also hugged top GOP figures like Paul Ryan and John McCain while Trump feuded with them. Pence also praised the gold star Khan family while Trump fought with them.
Nor is it the GOP ticket’s first split over Russia: Pence issued a statement threatening Russia over hacking while Trump was in the middle of a press conference in which he called on Russia to release Clinton’s emails.
On performance, Kaine seemed like a caffeinated Yellow Labrador puppy at times, letting his voice reach higher registers as he unsuccessfully tried to provoke his rival. Pence, for his part, affected thoughtfulness and sobriety with a measured tone and furrowed brows.
"I appreciate your whole ‘you’re hired, you’re fired,’ thing. You use that a whole lot," Pence mocked one of the many canned zingers Kaine attempted to land.
In batting aside Kaine’s bait, Pence gave Republicans a glimpse of what might have been had Trump performed better during last week’s debate, though Pence’s simple country lawyer schtick ran thin later in the debate as Kaine tightened his focus on Trump’s rhetoric.
But substance mattered too and the gap between Pence and Trump was especially pronounced on foreign policy, raising questions about the GOP ticket’s current platform.
During a discussion of Syria, Pence criticized Russia for supporting airstrikes by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad against rebels in Aleppo and said the United States "should be prepared to use military force to strike military targets of the Assad regime to prevent them from this humanitarian crisis."
That ran counter to Trump, who has suggested teaming up with Russia to target the Islamic State and previously criticized calls to use military force against Assad. Trump aides worked to reconcile the positions in the post-debate spin room.
Similarly, Pence criticized Clinton for being too deferential to Russia by seeking a "reset" of relations and referred to the "small and bullying leader of Russia." But Trump has lavished praise on Russian President Vladimir Putin throughout the race and both Trump and Pence have argued that Putin is a stronger leader than Obama — a quote that Pence denied when Kaine raised it.
Finally, when Kaine accused Trump of calling for more nations to develop nuclear weapons, Pence shot back "he never said that." That isn’t entirely accurate: Trump repeatedly suggested South Korea and Japan might be better off acquiring nuclear weapons to defend themselves rather than rely on American assistance.
When Kaine pressed the argument, Pence pivoted to an unrelated indictment of Clinton’s foreign policy.
The debate closed with an unusually personal discussion of faith and abortion, two topics that have not been prominent in Trump's campaign. Pence argued for "cherishing the dignity, the worth, the value of every human life." Kaine said one should "live your moral values" but that government should not restrict women's choices. Pence noted he and Kaine both supported the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funding for abortion, and challenged Kaine over Clinton's opposition to the longstanding provision.
Here too, Trump's past comments loomed. Kaine quoted Trump's remarks to MSNBC's Chris Matthews in March that women should face "some form punishment" for having an abortion, which Trump quickly took back. Pence said that was not their policy, but struggled to explain why Trump had so confidently asserted it in the first place.
"You know, things don't always come out exactly the way he means them," he said.
Trump threatened to overshadow his running mate by declaring he would tweet live during the debate, but his missives were mostly innocuous or too baffling to mean much, such as a snipe at Fox News host Megyn Kelly for apparently suggesting his staff was controlling his social media account.
Ironically, it was Trump’s allies at the Republican National Committee who flubbed the Internet, accidentally posting several web pages declaring Pence "the clear winner of the debate" before it had begun and pointing out individual highlights.
Editor’s Note: Benjy Sarlin reported from Washington.