NEW YORK (TIP): The Trump-Pence ticket is still losing the war, however, and October 4 night’s debate likely only succeeded in keeping hope alive that Donald Trump can mount a comeback, says a BBC news report.
For the last week, it’s felt a bit like Donald Trump was routed. His woeful first presidential debate performance was compounded by a series of unforced errors, capped by an early morning Twitter tirade and a damaging New York Times story about his near billion-dollar business losses in 1995. His poll numbers headed south.
The Republican vice-presidential nominee’s primary job – really his only job – was to stop the bleeding and give the campaign an opportunity to regroup. Kaine’s goal was to keep him from doing that. Pence honestly didn’t land too many blows on the Democrat. But first things first. He had to put out the raging dumpster fire that was his team’s campaign over the past week.
Having said that, sometimes it seemed like Pence was operating in a parallel universe than the one that Trump has inhabited over the past year.
Time and again, when Kaine pressed him on Trump’s past controversial statements and positions, Pence defended Trump the way he wanted him to be, not the way he really is.
Take, for example, the exchange on Russia. Pence warned of the threat the nation posed to world order and tried to lay its growing assertiveness at Mrs Clinton’s feet. He called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “small and bullying leader” who wasn’t confronted by the Obama administration.
As Kaine was quick to point out, however, Trump has showered the Russian president with praise, calling him a “strong leader”. A hard line against Russia is certainly a traditional Republican position – Mitt Romney embraced it in 2012 – but it’s hardly where Trump stands.
It almost seemed like Pence was more interested in making the case for conservatism the way Americans have known it over the last 30 years than mounting a spirited defense of Trump’s actual positions and statements.
That may help some wayward Republicans return to the fold in the short term. They need to be back in Trump’s column if he wants to make this presidential race competitive.
It also may not be a bad move for Pence if he wants to position himself as a possible candidate for the 2020 Republican nomination.
If there was one exchange that illustrated the challenges Pence faced in defending Trump – and how he, for the most part, survived them – it’s the issue of Trump’s tax returns.
It’s obviously an area Democrats want to exploit. Hillary Clinton hit the Republican on it multiple times in recent days, and her press aide Jennifer Palmieri told reporters at the debate site that Trump’s possible failure to pay income taxes gives Democrats an opening among white working-class voters.
When Pence was first asked about Trump’s break with 40 years of tradition by not making them public, he changed the subject. When Quijado pressed him, he said the leaked 1995 tax returns highlighted by the Times showed Trump went through some tough times and “brilliantly” used the tax code “just the way it’s supposed to be used”.
Kaine pressed him on why Trump has broken his pledge to release his full tax returns, and Pence retreated to Trump’s debunked line that he could only do so after he’s done being audited (a process that Trump himself has said has been going on for 15 years).
With results like that, it was no wonder Pence would rather not talk about Trump’s record. He put the exchange behind him, however, and moved on to more favorable terrain. Pence’s political jujitsu throughout the debate was quite a remarkable feat, really.
When Kaine confronted him on Trump’s past controversies, he responded by asserting that the Clinton team was the one waging an “insult-driven campaign”.
When Kaine attacked Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the US, Pence said “we’re going to put the safety and security of the American people first”.
When Kaine noted that Trump had suggested women who have abortions should be subject to criminal penalties (a position he later recanted), Pence said they “would never support” such legislation – and then, when pressed, said Trump wasn’t a polished politician and “things don’t always come out exactly the way he means them”.
“Six times tonight, I have said to Governor Pence I can’t imagine how you can defend your running mate’s position on one issue after the next,” an exasperated Kaine said at one point. “And in all six cases, he’s refused to defend his running mate.”
“I’m very, very happy to defend Donald Trump,” Pence said – but then opted to change the subject. It clearly frustrated Kaine, it probably will give fact-checkers fits, and Democrats will be in up arms. But it allowed Pence to move on – and, if the Republicans are lucky, turn the page in the coming days.
That is exactly what Trump needs.
This debate likely will have little effect on the overall poll numbers – they historically never do. What happens next is up to Trump. Pence did his part, now his running mate has two debates left to take advantage.