Indiana Gov. Mike Pence spent Tuesday’s vice-presidential debate being the opposite of Donald Trump, both in style and in substance.
Pence was humble. He was a font of homespun Midwestern values and traditional Republican orthodoxy. He was generally respectful, if testy at times, with his opponent, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
And on policy, Pence cast parts of Trump’s agenda as being different from what Trump has said, particularly on foreign affairs.
Pence said the United States should be willing to attack the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and he called Russian President Vladimir Putin “a small and bullying leader,” in contrast to Trump’s praise of Putin’s leadership and his repeated suggestions to largely leave Syria to others.
While Pence came ready to offer voters a plain-spoken counterbalance to his brash running mate, he also found himself being Trump’s defender and seeking to align the Trump campaign with the mainstream of the Republican Party.
Questions about the Republican nominee’s incendiary statements and his policies dominated the discussion and kept Pence explaining, or explaining away, the issues — invoking the radio-friendly voice, inscrutable smile and polished answers familiar to those who have followed his climb up the political ladder.
It was a dutiful, deflective and prepared performance for a campaign that rarely fits that description. Instead of causing Trump or his aides campaign-changing headaches, Pence played it safe and, when he could, sought to reassure the movement conservatives he knows well and who have been wary of Trump’s murky populism.
Beneath the smooth patter, however, there were significant cracks with Trump — especially with regard to Russia and its role in the war in Syria — that showcased how far Pence’s instincts stray from Trump’s.
“I just have to tell you that provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength,” Pence said. “If Russia chooses to be involved and continue, I should say to be involved in this barbaric attack on civilians in Aleppo, the United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike military targets of the Assad regime.”
It appeared to be a new policy stance, whether intentional or not.
Pence’s answer prompted GOP operative Tim Miller, an avowed Trump detractor, to tweet: “The positions Mike Pence just laid out on Syria and Russia are fantastic. Unfortunately they are closer to Hillary Clintons than Trumps.”
The cracks extended to Trump’s many controversies.
Sometimes, Pence simply and somewhat awkwardly kept quiet, such as when Kaine riffed about Trump using demeaning language about women. Pence did not respond as the moderator, CBS News’s Elaine Quijano, moved on to another topic.
A minute later, Pence referred to Kaine’s shot as he criticized Kaine and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, but again he declined to directly defend or explain Trump’s past remarks.
“Ours is an insult-driven campaign?” Pence asked with dramatic incredulity as Kaine looked on with his own disbelief. Pence then knocked Clinton for calling a group of Trump supporters “deplorables,” a comment she later said she regretted.
“I can defend — ” Pence began in another exchange. He then seemed to catch himself, pause for a second and decide against doing so, and quickly veered toward Clinton’s foreign policy.
The gestures to the right and the efforts to cast himself as a seasoned, down-home governor were overt. “I’m a small-town boy from a place not too different from Farmville” Pence began, his voice wistful and his white hair neatly brushed.
“There they go again,” Pence also said early on, in a reference to conservative hero Ronald Reagan’s famous line — “There you go again” — during the 1980 presidential debate against Jimmy Carter. He later quoted Reagan on nuclear war.
The expected cues to GOP leaders were there. At the start, Pence rattled off a list of partisan agenda items that have been championed by congressional Republicans but have at times been ignored by Trump in his trade- and immigration-focused speeches. He called for lower taxes, fewer regulations and an end to the “war on coal.”
As he has ever since he was tapped by Trump, Pence talked about his evangelical Christian faith and his lifelong support for antiabortion policy. He called Clinton’s position on partial-birth abortion “anathema to me.”
“My Christian faith is at the very heart of who I am,” Pence said. “It was church on Sunday morning and grace before dinner. . . . I try to spend a little time on my knees every day.”
Other campaign flash points were all but ignored as Pence kept his answers focused on his talking points.
When he was asked about Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns after the New York Times obtained tax documents from 1995, Pence knocked the federal tax code and touted Trump’s business career — and did not say whether Trump would ever release his returns. He called the Trump Foundation, which is being investigated by the New York attorney general and ordered to stop fundraising, a well-meaning family foundation without issues and then slammed the Clinton family’s foundation.
In the days before the debate, expectations for Pence among Trump’s advisers were low. They did not expect him to jolt the race or refashion Trump’s image. What they wanted was a stable supporting performance and little turmoil. In talks at Trump Tower and aboard Trump’s private plane, the night was framed more as a box to check than as a must-wow moment for the campaign.
Trump would speak highly of Pence when he spotted him on television, but he rarely if ever brought up the vice-presidential debate, according to former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.
“It’s not something he was worried about,” Giuliani said in an interview. “He trusts Mike.”
But Pence, 57, who picked up a workmanlike reputation during his time as a congressman and as governor, spent weeks preparing. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a friend, played the part of Kaine in mock debates at a hotel in Madison, Wis., and Pence was seen carrying heavy briefing binders as he traveled. His top aides, including Nick Ayers and Marc Short, guided the process, and Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, a longtime friend, offered advice.
“The best thing we can do for the campaign and Mike is to support his desire to be a loyal soldier on the ticket,” Ayers told NBC News on Tuesday.
Pence leaves Farmville, Va., still the loyal soldier, though another turn under such an intense spotlight is far from certain ahead of Election Day. The three big events of his time as Trump’s No. 2 — the announcement, the convention speech and the debate — are over, and his calendar will likely be crowded with rallies in key areas of swing states.
Pence will now return to campaigning, often in suburban high school gymnasiums, where he will appear much as he did Tuesday: confident in his conservatism and pleasant in his approach. Another round of questions about Trump could be few and far between, if his distant relationship with his traveling press corps and his limited media presence are any indication.
For Pence, that’s probably just fine. Give him a script, a few lines and a warm crowd, and he’ll play the part and try to make the sale. He’ll evoke “a small town in southern Indiana” right out of a John Mellencamp song.
And if reporters do shout questions, he can always flash that smile.