Republican Mike Pence has won plaudits for a calm and collected performance in the US vice presidential debate – but it was his Democratic opponent Tim Kaine who landed the most telling blows after forcing him to confront – or not – Donald Trump’s provocative remarks.
Pressed by Mr Kaine to defend his running mate throughout the 90-minute debate, Mr Pence mostly dodged, sidestepped or ignored the questions.
Mr Pence vouched for the New York billionaire’s tax history, but was less vocal when challenged about Mr Trump’s temperament or his inflammatory words about women and president Barack Obama.
“I can’t imagine how governor Pence can defend the insult-driven, me-first style of Donald Trump,” said Virginia senator Mr Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s running mate.
Mrs Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta said Mr Kaine had succeeded in his “strategic mission” to challenge Mr Pence to defend his controversial running mate.
“Governor Pence was smooth, he seemed sort of likeable, but he didn’t get the job done,” Mr Podesta said.
Both sides appeared willing to concede that the only debate between the vice presidential candidates was unlikely to alter the trajectory of the race for the White House.
For Republicans worried their voters will not show up at the polls, Mr Pence’s steady performance could help assuage concerns that this year’s Republican ticket has veered away from the party’s core beliefs.
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) October 5, 2016
Mr Pence, a former congressman and Indiana’s governor, is widely trusted by the Republican establishment and the party’s socially conservative base.
Mr Kaine rebutted attacks on Mrs Clinton’s family foundation, her emails and her struggles persuading voters that she is trustworthy. Mr Kaine said he and his wife trust the Democratic nominee “with the most important thing in our life” – their son, a Marine who would serve under Mrs Clinton if she wins.
Yet for the most part, Mr Kaine was determined to make the showdown a referendum on Donald Trump’s character. Typically relaxed and easygoing, he adopted a pugilistic approach as he slammed Mr Trump for having called women pigs and slobs, and condemned the New York billionaire’s praise of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Mr Pence frequently avoided taking the bait – a shrewd move for a conservative darling who could have eyes on the Oval Office himself if Donald Trump loses in November.
Instead, he sought to defuse the line of attack by arguing pre-emptively that it was the Democrats – not Mr Trump – waging an insult-filled campaign.
He did not dispute reports that the businessman might not have paid any federal taxes for years as a result of suffering more than 900 million dollars in losses in 1995. But he likened Mr Trump’s situation to those of other Americans who have gone “through a very difficult time”.
“He used the tax code just the way it’s supposed to be used,” Mr Pence said. “And he did it brilliantly.”
Kellyann Conway, the Trump campaign manager, faulted Mr Kaine for repeatedly interrupting Mr Pence, and “ignoring the female moderator,” Elaine Quijano of CBS News. She took particular issue with how often the Democrat had brought up Mr Trump’s name.
“It was like he had a tic,” Ms Conway said.
The campaign’s focus shifts back now to the presidential nominees, who meet again on Sunday for the second of three debates. For Donald Trump, it could be a final opportunity to demonstrate the race is not slipping out of his grasp as the balance appeared to tip in Mrs Clinton’s favour.