Republican Mike Pence and Democrat Tim Kaine on Tuesday largely aimed their fire not at one another during this year’s first and only vice presidential debate, but at the opposing side’s larger-than-life presidential nominees.
Even though Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were not on stage or even in the building here at Longwood University, they were consistently overshadowing their running mates throughout the duration of the 90-minute debate.
The Pence-Kaine matchup lacked the spectacularity of the first presidential debate, which drew a record 84 million viewers last week, according to Nielsen. But it took many cues from that first battle, including a multitude of personal attacks and a share of messy moments, with both candidates talking over one another and moderator Elaine Quijano of CBS News.
The lion’s share of those jabs were pointed upward.
Kaine, Virginia’s junior U.S. senator, took a particularly aggressive posture early on in the evening, slamming Trump for his temperament amid a recent public feud with former Miss Universe Alicia Machado. He said Trump’s actions, which included a 3 a.m. Twitter rant, were evidence of why he would make a poor commander in chief.
“Donald Trump can’t start a Twitter war with Miss Universe without shooting himself in the foot,” Kaine quipped before turning to Pence, who he said was trying to defend the indefensible.
The Indiana governor’s demeanor was calmer and more contemplative, and Pence was often forced to sit back as Kaine spoke over him.
A politician who made a name for himself in Indiana by disavowing negative campaigning, Pence shot back at Kaine’s comments that Trump has run a negative campaign by invoking a red meat rallying cry for Republicans.
“This ‘insult-driven campaign,’ ” Pence said, referring to Kaine’s wording about the Trump campaign, “that’s small potatoes compared to Hillary Clinton calling half of Donald Trump’s supporters a basket of deplorables.”
Both Pence’s and Kaine’s remarks Tuesday in this sleepy central Virginia town with an early role in the civil rights movement frequently read like a laundry list of hot-button issues for their respective political parties.
Pence was quick to mention Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state and the Clinton Foundation, two issues that hit at the heart of her trustworthiness with voters, perhaps the biggest challenge facing her campaign.
“There’s a reason why people question the trustworthiness of Hillary Clinton,” Pence said. “That’s because they’re paying attention.”
Kaine hit on Trump’s past comments about women, his hard-line immigration policy and refusal to release his tax returns.
“Donald Trump always puts himself first,” Kaine said. “He built a business career, in the words of one of his own campaign staffers, off the backs of the little guy.”
Tuesday’s debate included more of a traditional policy focus than last week’s battle, with discussions about immigration, race and foreign policy. It was also more fiery than recent debates between No. 2s.
It hit on many of the areas left out of the first debate, especially on social issues such as abortion.
Pence sought to drive a wedge between Kaine and Clinton by emphasizing their differences on abortion. (Kaine, a devout Catholic, personally opposes abortion but on the campaign trail defers to Clinton’s stance on the issue.)
“I’m very gentle about this because I really do respect you, it’s a principle that you embrace,” Pence said of Kaine’s stance on abortion. “But that’s not Hillary Clinton’s view. People need to understand we can come together as a nation and create a culture of life.”
Asked about a difficult decision from his time in office that tested his faith, Kaine spoke of having to come to terms with Virginia’s acceptance of the death penalty.
“That was a real struggle, but I think it’s really, really important that those of us that have deep faith lives don’t feel like we could just substitute our own views for everybody else in society regardless of their views,” Kaine said.
Both men were looking to inject more of a sense of heart and relatability to campaigns that have both struggled with historically high unpopularity ratings.
Moving the needle
History suggests the vice presidential debate will do little to move the needle in the presidential contest. But with just five weeks to go until voters hit the polls, both men were looking to make headway with educated white women in particular, a demographic that’s key to winning the White House in the fall.
National polls have showed Trump and Clinton locked in a tight race overall, but with the former secretary of state holding a small but notable lead in recent surveys.
The two were also looking to smooth the pathway for their respective running mates in the lead-up to the next presidential debate, slated for Sunday in St. Louis, particularly after a tough week for the Trump campaign.
Tuesday’s debate was also a key opportunity for Kaine and Pence to acquaint themselves with voters who largely don’t know them or have no opinion.
A CBS News poll released Tuesday estimated that 67 percent of voters were undecided about Kaine. Meanwhile, 57 percent of voters surveyed were undecided about Pence.
The results largely mirror those from an August poll commissioned by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll, which concluded that most Georgians approached the two men with a blank slate.
Wednesday marks 34 days until Americans vote in federal and state races on Nov. 8. All year, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has brought you the key moments in those races, and it will continue to cover the campaign’s main events, examine the issues and analyze candidates’ finance reports until the last ballot is counted. You can follow the developments on the AJC’s politics page at http://www.myajc.com/s/news/georgia-politics/ and in the Political Insider blog at http://www.myajc.com/s/news/political-insider/. You can also track our coverage on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GAPoliticsNews or Facebook at https://facebook.com/gapoliticsnewsnow.]]>