Donald Trump has claimed victory for his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, after a strong showing in Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate, but sources close to the Republican candidate say he was unhappy with his number two’s apparent decision to deflect criticism of Trump rather than defend him.
Pence and his Democratic counterpart, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, who have received little attention in a race focused on Trump and Hillary Clinton, faced off for 90 minutes in the only vice presidential debate of the campaign.
Kaine aggressively challenged Pence over a long list of Donald Trump’s controversial positions and statements, drawing a vigorous defense of Trump’s tax history. But Pence sidestepped criticism of Trump’s demeaning comments about women, his public doubting of President Barack Obama’s citizenship and broader questions about his temperament.
Minutes after the debate, Trump tweeted praise of Pence, saying that he had “won big.”
Mike Pence won big. We should all be proud of Mike!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 5, 2016
With the close White House race seen to tip in Clinton’s favor, Pence outlined a detailed conservative agenda on tax policy, entitlements and immigration. He was markedly more prepared and more detailed in his answers than Trump was in last week’s first presidential debate. He was also more consistent in painting the Democratic ticket as career politicians unwilling to shake up Washington.
“Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine want more of the same,” Pence said. He also repeatedly accused the Democrats of running an “insult-driven” campaign — an ironic attack line given that Trump has leveled repeated insults against Clinton and his former rivals in the Republican primaries.
There was a striking difference in the two men’s manners. Kaine, Clinton’s usually easygoing number 2, went on the attack from the start, repeatedly interrupting and challenging Pence. Pence, an equally genial politician, was unflappable.
Kaine pressured Pence to answer for some of his running mate’s provocative statements, using Trump’s own words, including instances in which he referred to women as pigs or slobs. He also challenged Pence on Trump’s decision to break with decades of campaign tradition by not releasing his tax returns.
“Donald Trump must give the American public his tax returns to show he’s prepared to be president, and he’s breaking his promise,” Kaine said.
Asked about reports that Trump might not have paid any federal taxes for years, Pence said his running mate “used the tax code just the way it’s supposed to be used, and he did it brilliantly.”
A snap poll conducted by CNN/ORC immediately after the debate showed a slight edge for Pence over Kaine, with 48 percent of respondents saying they felt the Republican won compared to 42% for the Democrat.
But sources close to Trump said that Pence underwhelmed in his defense of the billionaire businessman’s record. Asked about times during the debate that Pence passed up opportunities to defend the man at the top of the ticket, a senior Trump adviser said, “Pence won overall, but lost with Trump,” according to CNBC.
Donald Trump’s campaign chief, however, said that the vice presidential debate served as a powerful warning to Trump’s critics: “Here we come.”
Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said people keep leaving Trump for dead every time Hillary Clinton takes a modest lead in the polls, as she has in recent days, but that the strong performance will “probably raise the polls” for the Republican side.
Weighing heavily against Trump are a mediocre performance in his first debate with Clinton, followed by revelations of a $916 million loss in 1995 that may have meant he paid no federal income tax for several years, and criticism of his demeaning treatment of former Miss Universe Alicia Machado.
Since the first presidential debate, support for Clinton has risen to 44.3 percent against 40.6 percent for Trump, according to an average of recent national polls compiled by RealClearPolitics.
In a major gaffe, the Republican Party accidentally released its analysis of the debate a full 90 minutes before it began, claiming then that Pence was the “clear winner” in the face-off between the two vice presidential candidates.
“Mike Pence made the most of his opportunity to debate Hillary’s VP pick Tim Kaine,” the GOP wrote in a post that was taken down shortly after being published. Another post that was removed declared: “It’s clear who lost the VP debate, Hillary Clinton.”
Clinton’s campaign chief said the debate made it clear that Pence was not “capable of rehabilitating” Donald Trump.
Robby Mook noted that Pence let many of Trump’s statements stand, including the billionaire’s remarks about women.
It’s clear Pence “did not show up to defend him,” Mook said.