Sen. Tim Kaine may have awakened Wednesday to poor reviews after the first and only vice-presidential debate, but his acerbic performance in Farmville, Va., revealed that the Clinton campaign’s strategy for these debates extends far beyond the stage.
Armed with pre-planned Web videos, television ads and tweets, the campaign has used key debate moments this week and last as a cudgel against the Republican ticket, showing a level of discipline and organization largely absent from Donald Trump and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s campaign.
“Kaine had a very clear and simple plan for the debate: remind a national televised audience of all of the offensive things Trump has said and done in this campaign,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to President Obama. “The Clinton campaign was smart enough to know that who ‘wins’ or ‘loses’ the VP debate doesn’t move votes. Instead it’s an opportunity to communicate a message to a very large audience.”
“I don’t see a single thing that Pence did that moved the needle for Trump in any way,” he added.
Both Hillary Clinton and her running mate showed up on their respective debate nights well rehearsed. At moments, they seemed over-rehearsed. At one point Tuesday, Pence shot back at Kaine: “Did you work on that one a long time? Because that had a lot of really creative lines in it.”
But Clinton and Kaine had a larger goal in mind than winning the debates themselves: to create a series of compelling sound bites that they planned to weaponize for the reminder of the campaign. They logged scores of hours of preparation. They recited laundry lists of Trump’s faults. Their clear objective: to record him and his running mate embracing, denying or evading controversial positions that Trump has taken in recorded speeches.
That pattern is likely to continue Sunday at the next presidential debate, Democrats said.
“[Pence] claimed over and over and over again — he claimed, ‘He never said those things!’ ” exclaimed conservative radio host Glenn Beck on Wednesday. “We’re not living in the 1800s. We can go back to the clips on YouTube.”
And that’s exactly what the Clinton campaign did. Shortly after the debate Tuesday, the Clinton campaign tweeted out a glossy new site at hillaryclinton.com/literallytrump. The site highlighted dozens of moments “mentioned at the debate,” most of them by Kaine, with citations to back them up and the “share” button never too far away.
By Wednesday morning, a new video was blasted: a 90-second super-cut of Pence’s denials.
“At the VP debate, Mike Pence seemed to discover he was Donald Trump’s running mate,” the video said.
It is a pattern that first emerged after Clinton’s presidential debate against Trump at Hofstra University.
By the next morning, the Clinton campaign was armed with a similar compilation of Trump’s denials of things he claimed he “never said.”
Clinton had memorized Trump’s past statements down to his very language: “He even said: ‘Well, if there were nuclear war in East Asia, well that’s fine. Have a good time, folks.’ ”
“Wrong,” Trump interjected. “It’s lies.”
Then rolled the clip from a rally earlier in the year where Trump said, “Good luck, folks, enjoy yourself.”
For virtually all of the 90-minute debate Tuesday night at Longwood University, Kaine served as an encyclopedia of Trump’s most damaging comments, rattling them off one by one and even interrupting Pence to interject with clarifications.
“He’s got kind of a personal Mount Rushmore — Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Moammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein,” Kaine said at the debate, highlighting Trump’s praise of strongmen.
Critics described Kaine’s zingers as “dad jokes” and Kaine as a “one-liner robot.”
“He came across as a little bit manic,” said Republican strategist Rick Wilson, who has been sharply critical of Trump. “You’re looking for poise. You’re looking for steady.
“Pence’s background in broadcasting really came across there,” he added, a reference to the Indiana governor’s past career as a radio personality.
Yet, while Kaine’s at times hyperactive effort may have rubbed viewers the wrong way, it created a made-for-television highlight reel of all the times that Pence avoided defending his running mate or claimed that Trump never said things he has been documented as saying.
The Republican National Committee fired back with a video Wednesday that featured the 72 times that Kaine interrupted Pence, which became the Trump campaign’s No. 1 line of attack against Kaine following the debate. Trump, known for his own interrupting, tweeted Wednesday morning: “The constant interruptions last night by Tim Kaine should not have been allowed. Mike Pence won big!”
The Clinton campaign’s plan for debates has been to “take it in isolation and put it in an ad,” according to Jim Manley, a former adviser to Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). “It’s just the gift that keeps on giving.”
“Given her debate performance and given the campaign’s recent aggressiveness and Tim Kaine’s performance last night, they are really determined to go hard against Trump,” Manley added.
Clinton spent the day after Kaine’s debate hitting the books again, preparing for the next debate with a policy-focused session attended by policy advisers Sara Solow and Kristina Costa; her director of research, Tony Carrk, who has been a part of her debate prep team; and several other close aides.
Asked after an exhaustive session with Clinton at her home in Washington on Wednesday how the day went, her adviser Ron Klain replied simply, “Five hours.”
Clinton plans to spend the next three days continuing her preparation for the town-hall-style event Sunday at Washington University in St. Louis.
“Hillary did a lot of town-hall debates and a lot of town halls during the course of the primaries and into the general. She’s very used to the format. She likes it,” said Clinton campaign manager John Podesta. “She likes answering questions from individual citizens, and she listens hard and relates to people.
“That’s a format that Donald Trump isn’t as used to, so we’ll see,” he added.
In attacking Kaine, Trump’s campaign seemed to repurpose some of the attacks that Trump faced during the first presidential debate and in the tumultuous days that followed. “Unhinged” was a word frequently used by aides and surrogates in television interviews and on Twitter, borrowing a word Clinton used last week to describe Trump.
“I think you’re seeing the Clinton-Kaine campaign completely unhinged this morning,” Trump spokesman Jason Miller said on CNN.
When asked what he meant by “unhinged,” Miller replied: “Well, I think the 70-plus interruptions from Senator Kaine went to that, and Senator Kaine had a very tough time standing up and defending their ideas.”
Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.