Presidential Campaign

Who won the VP debate, Kaine or Pence? Pundits react

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The Hill asked Democratic, Republican and nonpartisan pundits to evaluate the two vice presidential nominees in their first and only debate. How did Republican Mike Pence and Democrat Tim Kaine do? Here’s what the pundits had to say.



Brad Bannon

Winner: Tim Kaine

Immediately after the introductions, Gov. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) went right to the mat for their presidential candidates. Vice presidential candidates don’t have much impact on the presidential vote, so the best they can do is reinforce their running mates’ messages or clean up their messes.

Pence had the tougher job, since GOP nominee Donald Trump left the bigger mess. So Pence had to be the guy with the pooper scooper who walks behind and cleans up after the elephant in a circus parade.

After Trump’s sorry performance in the first presidential debate, Pence had nowhere to go but up. Kaine, like Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, effectively kept his opponent on the defensive. Pence, like Trump, made a lot of funny faces when his opponent spoke. But Pence failed to, or couldn’t, defend any of Trump’s insults toward Latinos, women or veterans.

Kaine pressed the attack on Trump. The Democrat won because he held serve for Clinton, which is all that matters. Tuesday, the RealClearPolitics polling average had the Democratic ticket up almost 4 percentage points. It will still be about 4 points after this debate.

Bannon is CEO of Bannon Communications Research, which works with progressive groups, labor unions and Democratic candidates. He contributes regularly to two nationally syndicated progressive talk radio shows, “The Leslie Marshall Show” and “The Jeff Santos Show.” Bannon is also political analyst for CLTV, the cable news station of the Chicago Tribune and WGN-TV and a senior adviser to and contributing editor for, the social media network for politics.


Brent Budowsky

Winner: Tim Kaine

Kaine won the debate on points, but not decisively, and it will probably not have a listing impact on the election. At times, Kaine followed the strategy I suggested earlier today in The Hill, pitting Pence against Trump. Pence was weak defending Trump, usually by quickly changing the subject and attacking Clinton because he could not, or would not, defend Trump’s positions.

Pence was a more forceful debater and succeeded when he was presenting Trump as a change candidate, while Kaine was more forceful when he successfully pressed Pence about the GOP nominee.

Kaine scored with Clinton’s base. Pence scored with Trump’s base. Neither scored with undecided voters, so the debate probably does not change the election trajectory. It was not so much a debate between Kaine and Pence, but between Clinton’s talking points against Trump’s talking points. Another good reason to eagerly await the end of this campaign!

Budowsky was an aide to former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas) and former Chief Deputy Majority Whip Bill Alexander (D-Ark.). He holds an LL.M. degree in international financial law from the London School of Economics. Contact him at


Nomiki Konst

Winner: Tim Kaine

Pence, by virtue of having a conservative record and Trump as his running mate, was stuck in a Chinese finger trap on that debate stage.

Should he distance himself from Trump? Should he distance himself from his own ruthlessly conservative record? Should he go after Kaine hard and risk sounding like Trump the attack dog? Or should he be calm, reasonable and personable to counter the GOP nominee’s braggadocious behavior?

The burden was on Pence, but ultimately at this point in the race, Americans are frustrated by the theatrics that normally engulf audiences around debate time. After 15 long months of Twitter wars and conspiracy theories, Americans are looking for facts. And Pence did not deliver.

Alternately, Kaine just needed to amp up his warm persona while pushing Pence on the issues — which he did.

This debate was the “fact debate.” And while much was left out (LGBT issues, domestic economic policy, trade), Kaine won. He firmly delivered the Clinton/Kaine plans in details while pushing back on Pence’s distractions, weak explanations and record.

Konst is the host of “The Filter” on SiriusXM Progress, as well as a political contributor to CBS News (CBSN). Previously, she was a surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign.



Former Rep. John LeBoutillier (R-N.Y.)

Winner: Hillary Clinton

In the nastiest veep debate in history — filled with Kaine rudely interrupting Pence — the winner was Clinton. Why? Because Kaine prosecuted Pence with Trump’s own words, statements and refusal to release his taxes.

Kaine also — like Clinton last week — was the better rehearsed and prepared debater tonight, with a specific game plan going into the debate.

Final verdict: Kaine had more to work with — Trump’s controversies — and he used them very effectively to keep the Trump campaign on its heels.

LeBoutillier is a former Republican congressman from New York and is the co-host of “Political Insiders” on Fox News Channel, Sunday nights at 7:30 p.m. Eastern. He writes semi-regular pieces in the Contributors section on the “State of the 2016 Race.”


Matt Mackowiak

Winner: Mike Pence

The Trump campaign and the GOP could not possibly be happier with outstanding job that Pence did tonight, under extremely difficult circumstances.

Few people have been as critical of Trump as I’ve been, but my honest assessment tonight is that Pence dominated this debate from start to finish. He defended Trump at times when he could, and didn’t at others times when nothing could be gained.

While Kaine was badgering, programmed and unlikeable, Pence was folksy, humble, authentic and solid. Pence will energize GOP voters who tuned in and reassure independent voters who are uncertain about Trump.

Pence’s debate tonight will be a shot in the arm for GOP candidates and for the Trump campaign after a tough seven days. This is exactly what they needed.

Mackowiak is a syndicated columnist; an Austin, Texas-based Republican consultant; and a former Capitol Hill and George W. Bush administration aide.


Ford O’Connell

Winner: Mike Pence

When this night began, more than 40 percent of Americans couldn’t name the vice presidential nominee for either major party. I am not sure that is going to change after tonight. But if viewers walk away knowing only one name, it will be Mike Pence, who put in a valiant effort and won hands-down.

It is not so much what Pence said or any standout one-liner, it was how he did it. Pence was Trump’s foil in every way. He didn’t fall for the traps; he exuded normalcy and displayed a cool, calm and collected demeanor — something that downright irritated his Democratic opponent, the rather interrupt-y Kaine.

More importantly, Pence changed the campaign narrative with five weeks to go from what had been a terrible past week for Trump by throwing him a lifeline. For one night, Trump’s judgment cannot be assailed: His selection of Mike Pence, after all, was his first major leadership decision.

If Trump is wise, he will give Pence his day in the sun on Wednesday and parlay it to outshine Clinton this Sunday in St. Louis.

O’Connell is the chairman of CivicForumPAC, an adjunct professor at George Washington University Graduate School of Political Mangement, worked on John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and is author of the book “Hail Mary: The 10-Step Playbook for Republican Recovery.”



Bernie Quigley

Winner: Tim Kaine

Why: By the law enforcement and race relations segment — after a half hour of contentious back and forth, each candidate talking over and interrupting the other — Kaine established himself as the sensible and able professional, citing his work as a city councilman and mayor of Richmond, Virginia, where he claimed to have cut the murder rate in half. Pence, meanwhile, defaulted back to the question about police and others with rhetorical flourish: “My uncle was a cop.” “Police officers are the best of us.”

Pence comported himself well, but was left defending the indefensible as Kaine referred again and again to Trump’s litany of insults and vague policy statements throughout the campaign. Kaine not only won the debate but came out of the shadows, and was introduced to many Americans perhaps for the first time as a top-quality professional equal to the challenges of the vice presidency — and potentially the presidency.

Quigley is a prize-winning writer who has worked more than 35 years as a book and magazine editor, political commentator and reviewer. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and four children. Contact him at


Tom Squitieri

Winner: Mike Pence

Pence’s brilliant game plan held up through most of the debate: be the anti-Trump in style and bombast, ignore every question and fact, refuse to defend Trump and spin prep lines well. Aided and abetted by a woefully weak, inept read-questions-off-a-list moderator, Pence projected a classic, old-time Republican persona — even using one of President Reagan’s lines — mixed in with Indiana snugness. He often took positions solidly in opposition to his running mate, safely knowing that most Americans would not know the difference.

Kaine, meanwhile, channeled Trump’s penchant for interrupting and continually looking for help from the moderator, overeagerly delivering his debate prep talking points. He failed to land any blows. Kaine did defend Clinton, which at least shows ticket unity. However, he failed to make the debate about Trump and his overzealousness helped Pence avoid fessing up to statements made by Trump. He was over-rehearsed and often hyper while Pence was calm and looked into the camera. He failed to effectively call out Pence for denying basic facts about Trump.

Pence’s job was to stop the slipping slope toward defeat and he most likely did that to some degree. Ironically, he showed the model of the third-party candidate Republicans had hoped to find this year and no doubt energized fretting conservatives.

Squitieri is an award-winning reporter and communications veteran and an adjunct professor at American University and Washington and Jefferson College.



The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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