Indiana governor and Republican VP candidate Mike Pence put band aids on the self-inflicted wounds of the Trump campaign last night during the one and only vice presidential debate.
Seated at the same table as Democratic VP candidate Tim Kaine, Pence was cool and articulate in the face of a withering onslaught of interruptions and canned one-liners from Kaine.
Midway through Mike Pence’s answer to the first question put to him, Kaine interrupted. It was the first of what would be, by one count, 70 such interruptions by Kaine.
By all appearances, Kaine had a single mission – bait Pence into defending Trump’s misstatements, his gaffes and his past actions as a businessman. Pence avoided taking the bait. In doing so, he exhibited the kind of discipline that Republicans have been begging for from Donald Trump.
The debate came following one of the worst weeks so far for the Trump campaign. Following a run in September during which Trump had closed the polling gap against Hillary Clinton – pulling ahead of her in key states like Ohio and Florida – Trump had a shaky performance in the first debate.
A chunk of bait thrown out by Mrs. Clinton in that debate led Trump into a wee hours of the morning Twitter rant against Alicia Machado, a Miss Universe winner from 1996. Trump at one time owned the Miss Universe beauty pageant franchise and had been critical of Ms. Machado for gaining weight subsequent to her win.
Clinton used that episode to criticize Trump for his treatment of women. Trump refused to let it go.
His Twitter sideshow on a subject utterly unrelated to presidential policy served to take him off message while arming his opponent and her surrogates with more ammunition regarding Trump’s temperament. The ammo worked. Trump’s September polling gains are now slipping and it is once again advantage Clinton.
Mike Pence’s performance in the debate last night was the first step in what Trump supporters hope will be the effort to regain discipline and return to message. Every time Tim Kaine attempted to disrupt Mike Pence, Pence deflected the thrust, pivoted, and got back on message against Hillary Clinton.
Vice presidential debates seldom make any discernible difference in the outcomes of elections. Dan Quayle was famously crushed by Lloyd Bentsen in the 1988 VP debate. The Bush/Quayle ticket went on to win the election handily. Sarah Palin turned in a surprisingly strong performance against Joe Biden in 2008. The McCain/Palin ticket lost to Barack Obama.
If last night’s VP debate makes a difference in this election, it will be because Donald Trump watched it, learned from it and will apply what he learned from Mike Pence in the two remaining presidential debates – the next of which is this Sunday evening.
If Donald Trump follows Pence’s example, he can avoid his reflexive urge to lash out at every personal slight and instead keep his focus on exploiting Hillary Clinton’s many vulnerabilities.
If he does, he might still have a shot.