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CARY, N.C. — At the first blockbuster showdown between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence was in full view -- sitting under the bright lights doing interviews across numerous TV networks and breezing through the spin room, a visible presence among the hoopla of the night’s coverage.
As the candidates took the stage, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine was more than a thousand miles away, watching the debate in blue jeans, tennis shoes, and a peach t-shirt, with a bottle of lemonade next to him and a notebook on his lap.
The Democratic nominee was studying up for his own big moment.
“I'm going to be on the very edge of my seat taking notes because I got to prep for a debate next week,” Kaine said earlier that day. “While most of you guys are, you know, applauding or yelling, I'm going to be taking notes and doing homework.”
Kaine has been taking his studies for Tuesday night’s nationally televised debate with his GOP counterpart very seriously. For the five full days leading up to the big day, Kaine stayed away from public events as he hunkered down with staff and immersed himself in deep preparation for the debate of his life.
In the days leading up to the debate, the senator and top aides from the Clinton campaign aimed to get away, relax, and clear their heads as Kaine prepared for the debate at a site near Raleigh, North Carolina.
They stayed nearby at the Umstead Hotel and Spa, a 5-star luxury hotel in Cary, a quiet, foggy, and serene destination nestled in the middle of the woods next to a small lake with fountains, as warm temperatures hovered in the region as summer turned to fall. Kaine spent the final three days before the debate preparing near home in the Richmond, Virginia area. "It’s intense, but you know, I’m calm,” Kaine said while leaving his church on Sunday. “Things work out the way they are supposed to."
Even though Kaine studied in the critical swing state of North Carolina -- in a part of the state he has not campaigned in this year -- he held no public events.
“He’s doing what he’s been doing -- and frankly, what Hillary did -- and that is studying hard,” Kaine’s spokeswoman Karen Finney recently told reporters aboard his campaign plane on a recent trip from Orlando, Florida to Washington, D.C. -- as Kaine continued to prep for the debate.
Kaine and Clinton have spoken about their debates and he sought her guidance about how he should go about his own strategy.
“We’ve traded advice and thoughts,” Kaine recently told reporters on his plane. “I’m not part of the prep team, nor is she part of my prep team, but we have talked about it really since August. You know, I mean because I asked her for some basic advice. I’ve done a lot of debates, but this is at a different level. She’s done presidential debates before. So I asked her for advice about it. We are trading thoughts and strategies, less about the questions.”
Kaine has participated in high-profile debates during his competitive races for governor and senator in Virginia, but he acknowledges this time is very different because he will be primarily arguing on behalf of someone else.
“It’s a different kind of a debate for me because I have done debates where it’s at the end of it, ‘please vote for Tim Kaine,’” he said. “If I talk too much about Tim Kaine during my debate I’m wasting my time. It would not be a good way to use of my time and it is about two visions for the country. And it’s about a Clinton presidency or a Trump presidency.”
Kaine’s position in this debate is much like his position within the entire campaign, working to get elected and convince voters they should be comfortable with him as a major figure in the White House, while still selling the woman at the top of the ballot.
“I’m more than a surrogate because I’m on the ticket,” Kaine said. “But I am not the main event, so I’m in an in between space. And I’ve not done that before obviously, it’s a unique kind of a debate. So, again for me, I’ve been in elected life for 22 years, it’s not knowing another fact, but it is about thinking hard about the material, thinking hard about Pence’s record, and also what Pence’s record would say about the guy who chose him since it really is more about Donald Trump than it is about Governor Pence.”
Kaine and Pence have never met in person, but aides said Pence called the senator when Clinton picked him to join the campaign.
While on the trail, Kaine focuses much of his fire on Trump, but he has taken specific aim at Pence on a number of occasions. While campaigning in North Carolina, Kaine aimed to tie the “religious freedom” law Pence signed in Indiana to the state’s recent contentious “bathroom bill.” Kaine has also hit Pence for his previous comments on issues like climate change, President Obama and Vladimir Putin, institutional bias in the criminal justice system, and his response to David Duke.
Washington, D.C. power lawyer Bob Barnett is playing the role of Pence for Kaine in mock debates, a job Barnett has had with Democratic candidates for decades.
“He’s an attorney who kind of makes a specialty in prepping the VP contender in Democratic presidential elections going back many, many years,” Kaine said. “So he’s done a lot of this and he is extremely tough.”
While Kaine has a reputation as a nice guy, supporters of his point to an intense debate he had with Republican Jerry Kilgore during the 2005 governor’s race in Virginia to showcase how he can be forceful and go on offense. Kaine is also a Harvard-trained lawyer, and he would sometimes prosecute an argument in a debate like he would in a courtroom.
Kaine’s aides have been very tight-lipped about the details of his debate prep this year, but in other years when he prepped for his debates for governor or for senator, “every debate we prepped same way,” said Mo Elleithee, the current Executive Director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service and one of Kaine’s former senior advisors during his previous elections.
Kaine would have briefing books, study up on issues, and make sure he was clear on arguments he would make for himself and against his opponents. They would always do some practice and mock debates, “and in between he would go back and study up some more.”
Kaine always took it seriously and was always focused, Elleithee said, but “it helps when he’s comfortable in his in own skin and knows what he wants to say.”
“It wasn’t rocket science,” he continued. “Debate prep with him was pretty easy… as a campaign we would try to make sure it wasn’t easy, but it was really never a reinvention of him in debates. He knew who is and what he wants to say.”