Mike Pence achieved on the debate stage what arguably President Donald Trump did not in a similar showdown last week: He offered a cogent and restrained case for why traditional Republicans and some swing voters should return the Trump-Pence ticket to the White House for four more years.
For Wednesday night’s vice presidential square-off, Pence was charged with trying to steady the ship after a tumultuous week in which the president was hospitalized with the coronavirus and opinion polls showed the Republican Trump’s re-election bid against Democrat Joe Biden slipping away.
But even if Pence had a strong night against Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, the reality is that Pence is not Trump, the candidate who dominates TV screens and media coverage so completely that everyone in his orbit becomes lost in shadow.
And there was nothing to suggest the vice president’s debate performance in Salt Lake City will help Trump with his biggest problem in the Nov. 3 election: women.
The televised clash felt weightier than in years past, with the 74-year-old Trump being treated for COVID-19. Biden, 77, has also faced questions about his fitness for office should he win in November.
That made Pence and Harris more than campaign stand-ins. They were dueling backup quarterbacks, ready to take the field at any time if needed.
In the course of the 90-minute event, Pence reeled off a list of Trump campaign priorities such as low taxes, a powerful military, a conservative judiciary and an aggressive posture toward China – often refusing to directly answer questions in favor of his prepared remarks.
It was a notable difference from the erratic and caustic performance Trump himself turned in at a debate against Biden last week, one that sent polls spiking further in Biden’s direction. The most recent poll showed Biden with a 12-point edge heading into Wednesday’s debate.
Even so, Pence, like Trump, had no good answer when pressed for the campaign’s plan to cover people with pre-existing health conditions should the Trump administration succeed in doing away with the Obamacare health regime – a top concern of voters.
Harris, too, had her moments – and likely did nothing to damage Biden’s prospects. On the biggest stage of her political career, the U.S. senator was at ease and, at times, forceful.
Early on, when Pence was forced to defend his administration’s record on the pandemic, Harris acted swiftly, branding Trump an incompetent failure who had lied to the American public in remarks that quickly went viral.
“Kamala took her pound of flesh on coronavirus like she needed to, and Pence gave Republicans something to talk about for the next 28 days,” said Joel Payne, a Democratic strategist who worked for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
As much as it was her job as the vice presidential nominee to make the case against Trump and Pence, she was also there to serve another function: generate enthusiasm among the Democrats’ young, progressive base who may view Biden as a relic of an outdated political era. She made history just by being on the stage as the first Black woman and Asian-American on a major presidential ticket.
“Her role was to be an excitement machine. Pence’s role was to consolidate the base. And they probably both did themselves some favors in that regard,” Payne said.
Matt Gorman, a Republican strategist who worked for Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign, said Harris stumbled when she refused to answer whether she and Biden supported adding new justices to the U.S. Supreme Court to balance it ideologically.
Harris, he said, “can throw big punches. But she can also get knocked down.”
Still, the Trump-Pence ticket was the one that needed the biggest boost and to make up lost ground with swing voters, particularly women.
Pence may not have helped himself by regularly interrupting Harris, who implored him to let her finish her answers, as well as the moderator, Susan Page. A flash CNN poll found that women viewers overwhelmingly thought Harris won the debate over Pence.
In that way, Pence was more like Trump than it looked.