Republican Mike Pence won bipartisan plaudits for a calm and collected performance in the vice presidential debate. But Democrat Tim Kaine was claiming mission accomplished for forcing his opponent to confront —or not — Donald Trump's provocative remarks.
Pressed by Kaine to defend his running mate throughout the 90-minute debate Tuesday night, Indiana Gov. Pence often dodged, sidestepped or let the moment pass by. He vouched for the billionaire's tax history, but was less vocal when challenged about Trump's temperament or his inflammatory words about women and President Barack Obama.
"I can't imagine how Gov. Pence can defend the insult-driven, me-first style of Donald Trump," said Kaine, the Virginia senator and Hillary Clinton's No. 2.
Still, even Clinton's team wasn't claiming that Kaine had come out on top, despite the chest-puffing that usually follows a political debate. Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta said only that Kaine had succeeded in his "strategic mission" to challenge Pence to defend his controversial running mate.
"Gov, Pence was smooth, he seemed sort of likable, but he didn't get the job done," Podesta said Wednesday on MSNBC.
Both sides appeared willing to concede that the only debate between the vice presidential candidates was unlikely to alter the trajectory of the race. After all, this year's rollicking presidential campaign has been all about the passionate emotions — positive and negative — that both candidates of the top of the ticket stir up for many American voters.
Yet for Republicans worried their voters won't show up at the polls, Pence's steady performance could help assuage concerns that this year's Republican ticket has veered away from the party's core beliefs. Pence, a former congressman and Indiana's governor, is widely trusted by the Republican establishment and the party's socially conservative base.
Like Pence, Kaine also found himself in the role of defender. He rebutted Pence's attacks on Clinton's family foundation, her emails and her struggles persuading voters that she's trustworthy. Kaine said he and his wife trust Clinton "with the most important thing in our life" — their son, a Marine who would serve under Clinton if she wins.
Yet for the most part, Kaine was determined to make the showdown a referendum on Trump's character. Typically relaxed and easygoing, Kaine adopted a pugilistic approach as he slammed Trump for having called women pigs and slobs, and condemned his praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Pence frequently avoided taking the bait — a shrewd move for a conservative darling who could have eyes on the Oval Office himself if Trump loses in November. Instead, he sought to defuse the line of attack by arguing pre-emptively that it was the Democrats — not Trump — waging an insult-filled campaign.
He didn't dispute reports that the businessman might not have paid any federal taxes for years as a result of suffering more than $900 million in losses in 1995. But he likened Trump's situation to those of other Americans who have gone "through a very difficult time." He also pointed out the New York Times, which first reported the tax story, has avoided paying taxes itself, just like most major companies.
"He used the tax code just the way it's supposed to be used," Pence said. "And he did it brilliantly."
He raised eyebrows and caused a stir on social media when he said Kaine had "whipped out that Mexican thing again" by repeatedly raising Trump's comments critical about Hispanic immigrants. Clinton's supporters seized on the remark, and by Wednesday morning, visitors to ThatMexicanThing.com were being redirected to her campaign website.
Kellyann Conway, Trump's campaign manager, faulted Kaine for repeatedly interrupting Pence, and of "ignoring the female moderator," Elaine Quijano of CBS News. She took particular issue with how often the Democrat had brought up Trump's name.
"It was like he had a tic," Conway said. She spoke Wednesday on Fox News and MSNBC.
The campaign's focus shifts back now to the presidential nominees, who meet again Sunday for the second of three debates. For Trump, it could be a final opportunity to demonstrate the race isn't slipping out of his grasp.
Five weeks from Election Day, the race appears to be tipping in Clinton's favor. Widely viewed as the loser of the first debate last week, Trump went into a multi-day tailspin over a decades-old tiff with a troubled beauty queen. New public opinion polls show Clinton's standing on the rise in nearly all battleground states.
Pence was markedly more prepared and more detailed in his answers than Trump was on the debate stage last week. He was also more consistent in painting the Democratic ticket as career politicians unwilling to shake up Washington.
On national security, Kaine revived Trump's frequently flattering comments about the leadership of Putin, the Russian president.
"He loves dictators," Kaine said. "He's got like a personal Mount Rushmore: Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Moammar Gadhafi and Saddam Hussein."
Pence tried to flip the tables by accusing Kaine's running mate of stoking Russia's belligerence.
"The weak and feckless foreign policy of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has awaked an aggression in Russia that first appeared in Russia a few years ago," Pence said. "All the while, all we do is fold our arms and say we're not having talks anymore."