Indiana Gov. Mike Pence dismissed Donald Trump's campaign stumbles in recent months as the missteps of an inexperienced politician who nevertheless has the business acumen to grow the U.S. economy and military. He did so as Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine repeatedly demanded that Pence defend a campaign season that has been defined in part by Trump's offensive offensive remarks toward nearly every voting demographic.
"He's not a polished politician like you and Hillary Clinton," Pence said during the only vice presidential campaign of the 2016 election Tuesday night in Virginia. Whether Americans choose to believe Pence or Kaine could decide who wins the White House on Election Day.
After months on the campaign trail, neither Pence or Kaine were well-known heading into the vice presidential debate, ensuring the event Tuesday at Longwood University in Farmville was essentially the halftime show between September's stinging debate between Trump and Clinton and the nominees round-two tussle next week.
The low-key politicians needed to show the nation they were up for the job of being just a heartbeat away from the presidency. It's a real possibility often overlooked when the focus is on the presidential candidates, but throughout the nation's history, eight vice presidents have been tapped to take on the White House's top post after a president died while in office. During the 2008 campaign, Arizona John McCain seemingly lost points with voters after he named then Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his VP pick and the media quickly deemed her a political lightweight.
Both Pence and Kaine are longtime politicians and they came across as knowledgeable and loyal during the debate while defending their presidential nominees.
Pence prepared with help from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, once considered a favorite for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. His challenge Tuesday was to persuade voters concerned that Trump is too volatile to lead the White House that he brings hefty political experience to the Republican ticket. His conservative credentials -- he has lead the fight against LGBT rights in Indiana-- could also help woo evangelicals.
He largely succeeded by calmly drawing attention to Clinton's email scandal and alleged failed policies with Russia and Syria while secretary of state as Kaine repeatedly interrupted him with his own talking points.
"If your son or my son handled classified information the way Hillary Clinton did, they’d be court-martialed," Pence said at one point.
He later linked her to the Syrian refugee crisis and growing terror attacks carried out by Islamic State group supporters: "We’re watching hour by hour in Syria as the result of the weak and failed foreign policy that Hillary Clinton helped lead and create."
Political observers praised his performance.
"Pence repeatedly bobbed and weaved. But he was calm and collected. Style points – and style matters a great deal on the debate stage – wins Indiana Gov. Pence the round over an over-caffeinated performance by Virginia's Sen. Kaine," the Los Angeles Times wrote of the first half of the debate.
Kaine went into the debate with a much easier task: Don't look worse than Trump. He sought to remind voters what that meant, detailing Trump's remarks over the campaign season about Mexicans, women, African-Americans, an Indiana-born judge with Mexican heritage and Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
"I cannot believe that Gov. Pence will defend the insult-driven campaign that Donald Trump has run," Kaine said. "Six times tonight I have said to Gov. Pence I can't imagine how you can defend your running mate's position on one issue after the next."
The New York Times said Kaine had a slow start, but eventually landed some blows. "Mr. Kaine — who earlier in the debate seemed to have trouble nailing his attacks — settled into a more even rhythm, reeling off examples of Mr. Trump’s attacks on immigrants and women," the newspaper wrote.
Politico was less complimentary. A headline on the site during the debate read: "Kaine struggles to pin Trump’s scandals on Pence."
GOP pollster Frank Luntz said he watched the debate with a group of voters who declared Pence the winner. "Well, Mike Pence is making a lot more attacks stick to Hillary than Tim Kaine is to Trump," he wrote.
Between the sparring, debate moderator, CBS News' Elaine Quijano, sought to force the candidates to directly answer tough questions on Clinton's charitable foundation and State Department policies in Russia, and Trump's plan to take the Islamic State group out of Syria.
"Gentlemen, the people at home cannot understand you when you speak over each other," she reminded them as Kaine delivered another blow and Pence shrugged off the attack.