Or when Kaine called out Trump for breaking his promise to release his tax returns.
Or when he said Trump proposed deporting 16 million people.
It seemed a bit smug
Carol Davis, 50, independent homemaker and Ph.D. student from McLean, Va.
Throughout the 90-minute debate, Kaine tried over and over to force Pence to defend Trump.
“I'm very, very happy to defend Donald Trump,” Pence said.
But then he didn’t.
Pence received mostly favorable reviews for his debate performance — which came across more genuine and less canned than the overeager Kaine — but mostly because he spent much of the debate not actually talking about Trump. Sometimes, he was simply silent. Other times, he vigorously shook his head no in a visual signal to viewers.
The list of topics Pence avoided was long: Trump’s comments about a U.S. born judge whose parents are from Mexico, Trump’s remarkthat Sen. John McCain, a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, is not a hero, and Trump’s unfounded allegation that Barack Obama may not be born in the United States. In each of those cases, Trump’s comments had been widely reported and not in dispute.
“It felt very uppity,” said Xavier Clark, 22, a Democrat from Arlington, Va.,who watched the debate in a focus group conducted by McClatchy in the Washington suburb of Arlington, Virginia. “He seemed above it all.”
During the few moments he did address statements Trump made, Pence denied them or even misstated them. “No he hasn't,” he said repeatedly.
Pence denied that Trump praised Vladimir Putin, instead calling the Russian president a “small and bullying leader.” He denied that Trump said Putin hadn’t invaded Ukraine, which he did in 2014.
“Donald Trump knew that happened,” Pence said. “He basically was saying it's not going to happen again.”
What you saw time and again was Mike Pence unwilling to defend Donald Trump very vigorously
Clinton campaign spokeswoman Karen Finney
And Pence denied that Trump said he would punish women who had abortions. “Donald Trump and I would never support legislation that punished women who made the heartbreaking choice to end a pregnancy,” he said.
“Then why did Donald Trump say that?” Kaine asked.
“Well, look ... he’s not a polished politician like you and Hillary Clinton,” Pence responded.
“You’re going to see that come back to haunt him,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. “The Trump campaign is trying to attract women voters. You’re going to see this in a Clinton campaign commercial.”
But Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union and former political director for President George W. Bush, said Pence made a good decision by responding to Trump’s comments and quickly turning back to other issues.
“This election is about the economy and about national security and about a broken Washington. That’s what voters say,” he said. “When you get too caught up in answering the charges, you don’t get to make your points. What you’re really saying is, he spent too much time talking about what the election‘s about and not enough time talking about what Clinton would like it to be about.”
The first and only vice presidential debate was almost completely focused on the two unpopular candidates on top of the major party tickets, Trump and Clinton. Even their critics concede that Pence and Kaine are qualified to step in as president if needed, negating much need to explore their abilities.
Kaine came off as the hyper-partisan surrogate with a style grating to voters though unflappable in his support of Clinton. Pence came across as more authentic and approachable, staring directly into the camera. But his dodges could do more harm to the campaign in the long run.
“It was a better night for Pence than it was the Trump-Pence campaign,” said University of Michigan debate coach Aaron Kall.
Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kansas, argued that Pence helped the ticket by avoiding the Trump comments raised by Kaine and focusing instead on other issues.
“I think what he was trying to do was focus the American people on the things that really matter to them and not get caught caught up in the silliness ... the tangential issues that don’t change the life of a single American, that don’t create a job, that don’t keep America safe,” he said.
The long-term benefit probably goes to Tim Kaine. Over the next several days you will have reporters asking the Trump campaign, ‘Do you agree that Trump never said that?’ I don’t think that’s the kind of thing that benefits the campaign over the long run
Quentin Kidd, director of the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University
A pro-Clinton committee offered a more critical view of what Pence did.
“Mike Pence aw-shucks-ed and shook his head through 90 minutes of pretending Donald Trump doesn’t exist,” said Elizabeth Shappell, a spokeswoman for a pro-Clinton super political action committee Correct the Record. “He dodged, ducked, deflected and lied his way through the entire debate.”
Pence also tried to force Kaine to respond to Clinton’s ongoing scandals over using personal email for government business and potential conflicts of interest involving her family foundation. Kaine ignored them at the start, but by the end of the debate he responded to the allegations directly.
“I am glad to talk about the foundation,” Kaine said. “Hillary Clinton as secretary of state took no action to benefit the foundation. The State Department did an investigation, and they concluded that everything Hillary Clinton did as secretary of state was completely in the interest of the United States.”
This version updates with more background on Trump’s statements.
David Goldstein and David Lightman contributed.