It was supposed to be a layup: Republican vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence condemning Hillary Clinton's "basket of deplorables" remarks, while addressing a friendly audience of social conservatives. Instead, done in by either incomplete notes or the awkwardness of Clinton's phrase, Pence spent about two minutes of his speech to the Values Voter Summit struggling to craft the right response.
"Hillary Clinton, in remarks that were made in New York City just last night, bear repeating," said Pence, rifling through a sheaf of notes. "And … let me see where someone put them here."
As the audience of hundreds laughed gently in support, Pence made a joke at his own expense: "Take your time." Then he looked up and appeared to proceed without the quote in hand.
"Hillary Clinton said last night, at a big fundraiser in New York City, that, uh, the American people, the millions of Americans that are supporting my running mate, were described in the most deplorable of terms. It's extraordinary to think of it. She referred to those people as irredeemable."
Pence paused for effect, tucking his tongue inside his cheek. "Well, I will tell you right now — I campaign on a regular basis with Donald Trump," he said. "I campaign all across this country for Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton's low opinion of the people that support this campaign should be denounced in the strongest possible. The truth of the matter is that the men and women who support Donald Trump's campaign are hard-working Americans. Farmers. Coal miners. Teachers. Veterans. Members of our law enforcement community. Members of every class of this country who know that we can make America great again. So let me just say, from the bottom of my heart — they are not a basket of anything. They are Americans and they deserve your respect."
That, finally, drew applause and hoots of recognition, but it wasn't clear how many people in the audience could tell what Pence was referring to. In the lengthy Clinton quote, the Democrat — telling donors that she was making a "gross generalization" -- said that "half" of Trump's supporters amounted to "a basket of deplorables," evil and racist forces that were "irredeemable." After the quote blew up, Clinton's campaign insisted that the reference to "supporters" was not a reference to half of Trump's voters.
But in the first real test of how the quote could be weaponized, Pence came up with a fistful of nothing. After the applause for his "respect" line, he steered himself to safer shores, referring to a 2008 moment when then-Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama told donors that some voters would oppose him because harsh economic realities made them "bitter."
"I've not heard that level of disdain for Americans, that I can't even repeat, since Barack Obama described people that oppose him as people that cling to their guns and religion," Pence said. "Let me just say, no one with her record of failure at home and abroad, no with her avalanche of dishonesty and corruption, and no one with that low opinion of the American people should ever be elected president."