Opinion

ERIC FEHRNSTROM

Mike Pence comes to Donald Trump’s rescue. Or does he?

Tim Kaine and Mike Pence debate Tuesday in Farmville, Va.
Andre Gombert/Getty Images
Tim Kaine and Mike Pence debated Tuesday in Farmville, Va.

Mike Pence’s strong showing against Democrat Tim Kaine in Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate reminded Americans of what it’s like to have a Republican candidate who can talk about the issues in a straightforward and lucid manner. Voters seeing both men for the first time may be wondering why they are not topping the ticket instead of their flawed running mates.

Let’s start with the fact that both are more popular than either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, who rank first and second, respectively, on the list of most disliked presidential candidates in American history. A CBS News pre-debate poll found that while Pence and Kaine remain largely unknown to voters nationally, they have net positive ratings. They also are parents of sons serving in the US Marines, making them mindful of the stakes involved with presidential war-making in a way that neither Clinton nor Trump could ever apprehend.

Pence, the Indiana governor and former congressman, is everything Trump is not. Where Trump is impolite and brash, Pence is cordial and Midwestern-nice. Where Trump struggles to stay on message, Pence is relentlessly focused. On issues like abortion, Pence is reliably conservative. He proved it with a sincere confession of his antiabortion position, something that Trump has only recently embraced and seldom talks about.

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Kaine, a senator from Virginia and that state’s former governor, is also admired. Unlike Clinton, with her unscrupulous financial dealings and deceptive e-mail practices, Kaine is considered an ethical person. Kaine doesn’t condescend like Clinton. His harmonica playing on the campaign trail may come across as corny, but it’s still more natural than Clinton’s wooden personality.

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Pence did not suffer from Trump’s lack of preparation, and thus was far more effective in prosecuting the case against Clinton — on her failed foreign policy, amnesty for illegal immigrants, secret e-mail server, and the shady finances of the Clinton Foundation. Republicans could be forgiven for suddenly waking up to the fact this is a winnable race.

Pence knew when to thrust and when to parry. When the subject of Trump’s taxes came up, Pence coolly sidestepped the issue and turned it into a discussion of Trump’s record of creating “tens of thousands of jobs.” He came to the defense of law enforcement officers who are tarnished “with an accusation of implicit bias every time there is a police shooting,” imploring Clinton to “stop seizing on these moments of tragedy.”

If Trump was stumbling following a rocky week of gaffes and bad news, Pence’s performance was like pouring ballast into the hull of a listing ship.

Kaine had the harder job, as Pence repeatedly deflected his attempts to get Pence to defend Trump’s comments in support of President Vladimir Putin of Russia and against Mexican immigrants, women, and Muslims.

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“He is asking everybody to vote for somebody that he cannot defend,” a frustrated Kaine said.

So will Pence’s strong performance help Trump? History says no. Vice presidential debates rarely influence voters. Even the memorable ones don’t move the needle.

In 1988, Republican Dan Quayle was widely viewed as losing the vice presidential debate when his opponent, Lloyd Bentsen, bested him with a line that is still recalled today for its devastating effect: “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Quayle then went on to become vice president.

The task of winning falls squarely on Trump’s shoulders. But should Trump be defeated, then it could be said the real losers from Tuesday night’s debate are Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and any other Republicans thinking of running against Pence for president in 2020.

Eric Fehrnstrom is a Republican political analyst and media strategist, and was a senior adviser to Governor Mitt Romney.