Donald TrumpDonald TrumpOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Milley warns of 'Sputnik moment' for China WSJ publishes letter from Trump continuing to allege voter fraud in PA Oath Keeper who was at Capitol on Jan. 6 runs for New Jersey State Assembly MORE got help from an unexpected quarter on Tuesday night as Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump to attend World Series Game 4 in Atlanta Pavlich: Democrats' weaponization of the DOJ is back Mellman: The trout in the milk MORE's running mate, Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KainePatience wears thin as Democrats miss deadlines Obama gives fiery speech for McAuliffe: 'Don't sit this one out' Biden injects new momentum into filibuster fight MORE (D-Va.), delivered an uneven performance in the year's sole vice presidential debate.
Stylistically, at least, Trump's vice presidential nominee, Indiana Gov. Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceFormer professor claims she was fired in retaliation over COVID-19, criticism of Pence Jan. 6 panel plans to subpoena Trump lawyer who advised on how to overturn election Pence to deliver address on 'educational freedom' in Virginia MORE (R), was the clear winner of the encounter, held at Longwood University in Farmville, Va. His superiority was especially clear in the early stages. Pence was steady and controlled in those crucial moments, while Kaine interrupted and appeared overly aggressive, even to independent observers.
Pence defended his running mate's more controversial statements where he could and danced away from other issues with a shake of his head.
Some of those dissenting gestures could become problematic later; Pence appeared to deny things that the Republican nominee had, in fact, done or said, such as praising Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Overall, however, Pence showed the kind of focus that was widely felt to be lacking in Trump's own performance in his first clash with Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, last week.
Pence's apparent victory is unlikely to change the trajectory of the race in a fundamental way. But it does at least turn the page after a miserable period for Trump. Now, much will hinge on the second Trump-Clinton bout, which takes place Sunday in St. Louis.
Trump's poll numbers have fallen over the eight days since his first presidential debate, a period also marked by a feud with a former Miss Universe and a damaging New York Times exposé of his tax affairs.
But before that first debate of 2016, Trump had almost erased a once-comfortable Clinton lead. Given the unprecedented nature of this year’s campaign, it’s possible that the race has a twist or two more still to come.
Much of the early part of the vice presidential debate was taken up with squabbling over issues such as which side had run the most “insult-driven” campaign. The moderator, Elaine Quijano of CBS News, battled to keep the debate civil against steep odds.
Pence, perhaps drawing on his experience of being a radio talk show host earlier in his life, appeared the more confident and controlled of the two candidates. By contrast, some of Kaine’s attacks had a canned quality, and he spoke over both Quijano and Pence repeatedly.
That said, the battle to shape public perception of debates is often won and lost in the 24 or 48 hours afterward, rather than during the events themselves. Kaine’s central strategy of highlighting as many of Trump’s inflammatory statements as possible could pay off as the 90-minute debate gets reduced to sound bites in the hours and days to come.
Kaine repeatedly jabbed at Trump’s embrace of “birther” theories doubting President Obama's citizenship and recalled the businessman's statement, at the launch of his campaign last June, that “rapists” were among the illegal immigrants entering the United States from Mexico.
While Pence was not shaken by jabs like those for the vast bulk of the debate, he did push back in a clumsy fashion at one point in its late stages, telling Kaine, “You’ve whipped out that Mexican thing again.”
At other times, the Indiana governor parried in a much more effective fashion. He told Kaine that Trump was “not a polished politician like you and Hillary Clinton” and advocated hard for the idea that the Republican ticket would bring a much-needed change to a dysfunctional political system.
In a relatively brief exchange over the Clinton email controversy, Pence told Kaine that if either of their sons who serve in the Marines had handled classified information in the same way as the then-secretary of State had done, “they’d be court-martialed.”
In the immediate aftermath, Republican surrogates seemed happier than their Democratic counterparts with how things had gone in Farmville.
Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta acknowledged in the post-debate spin room that Pence had been “smooth” but argued that the Republican had not enjoyed any campaign-changing moments.
Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway claimed victory for Pence and told NBC News moments after the debate ended that her team had “lost count” of the number of times Kaine had interrupted.
Kaine and the Democrats may take heart from the fact that the TV audience for the debate was widely expected to be significantly lower than the 51.4 million who tuned in to watch Vice President Biden take on the future Speaker, Rep. Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanJuan Williams: Pelosi shows her power Cheney takes shot at Trump: 'I like Republican presidents who win re-election' Cheney allies flock to her defense against Trump challenge MORE (R-Wis.), in the equivalent event four years before.
In a CNN/ORC instant poll, a plurality of people believed Pence had won, 48 percent to 42 percent. Trump himself tweeted, “Mike Pence won big!”
But even if that is true, the future of the race now lies in Trump’s own hands — and in those of his opponent.
Tuesday night’s clash whet the appetite — and heightened the stakes — for the next Trump-Clinton debate on Sunday.