US 2016: Mike Pence and Tim Kaine have their Moment in the Sun

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Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine (L) and Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence (R) arrive on stage for the US vice presidential debate.

Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine (L) and Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence (R) arrive on stage for the US vice presidential debate.

Photo_Web_Kaine_Pence_051016

Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine (L) and Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence (R) arrive on stage for the US vice presidential debate.

Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine (L) and Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence (R) arrive on stage for the US vice presidential debate.

The American presidential campaign moved to a small town in central Virginia for the single vice presidential debate, at Longwood University.

And so it came to pass that two middle-aged white guys came to a small town in the battleground state of Virginia. For one it would be an attempt to lock the gate on Donald Trump or, alternatively, paint some gaudy lipstick at that particular pig. Or something like that. Indiana Governor Mike Pence, Donald Trump's running mate and nominee for vice president, faced Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, the man who has joined Hillary Clinton on her push for the White House. Before the debate, the betting line was that both men, politicians thoroughly steeped in "politics as it is usually practiced", would veer sharply in the direction of an actual substantive debate, rather than a wild shouting match of invective and insults.

Thinking ahead to what was to follow, Mike Pence's task was to reverse the current momentum and embrace and somehow defend Trumpian behaviour -- especially in light of this past week's revelations about The Donald's tax history and his misogynous tweeting habits -- as well as make some sort of case for Republican security and economic plans. Tim Kaine's task was more interesting and complex in a way. In this debate he had to advance the case for Hillary Clinton's compassion and humanity, even as he was charged with completing a thorough demolition work on the Trump candidacy that already been initiated by that candidate himself. As CNN commentator Van Jones argued just as the debate was to begin, a central task for both men was "to deliver the knife with a smile" -- and serve as the setup for the lines of attack -- and defense -- that will be rolled out in the second presidential candidates' debate coming up on Sunday.

Elaine Quijano of CBS10 and CBS News was the moderator and all three people were seated closely together at a conference table - a significant departure from the standard configurations for these quadrennial debates. On television, the faces of the two candidates were consistently shown on split screen, giving viewers the chance to view grimaces, eye rolls, and smirks. Both men were being lauded for their ownership of the politicians' craft, projecting some well-practiced sincerity and a mastery of the "just folks" patter, even as they were poised to plunge those respective knives right in between their rival's shoulder blades.

And then they were off. Wham! Bang! Slam! Smack! Crash! Right into each other.

Mike Pence gamely took on a defense of Trump's economic plans, oozing sincerity over cutting taxes for small businesses, while Kaine offered a contrast between Trump's "you're fired" to the Clintonian "you're hired" approach -- citing the sustained growth under the Obama presidency since the financial crisis of 2008-09. Pence insisted the Trump business empire was a great American business saga and he tried hard to defend Trump's entrepreneurial acumen, even as he lost nearly a billion dollars in 1995. (Oops!) The verbal battle moved over to whose tax plans would goose economic growth and cut taxes best, or, as a consequence if the other's tax and spending plans were adopted, would raise the national debt. Lots of smoke there, but less than rich clarity.

Shifting to policing, security and race relations, Kaine reached for the moderate middle, supporting the Second Amendment but endorsing stronger background checks for would-be purchasers of firearms. Meanwhile, Pence echoed his competitor's support for responsible policing, and in that unctuous way known to thousands of revival churches and certain talk radio programmes, sought to rally support for the police whatever the circumstances -- "law and order" but without the conscious dog whistles to the right wing. The race to the deepest possible level of sincerity was on the go. Judging from this segment of the program, everyone is in favour of criminal justice reform it seems. And at least in Pence's case, that includes "stop and frisk" policies. (Ah, time for Kaine to wheel out Trump's long litany of insult and invective against.... well, you already know THAT extensive list of his targets. And that provoked Pence to repeat " the deplorables" jib. So there!

And then we were on to the Trumpian immigration plan, the deportation force, the magical disappearance/departure of more than 11 million people, and the revocation of birthright citizenship. Left unexplained by Pence was whether all those people would simply line up to go away or be herded onto the freight cars of those deportation trains rumbling over the Rio Grande River bridges.

Turning to global terrorism, Kaine argued that while the threats have both gone down in some respects, it obviously remains a problem in other respects, citing the details of the Clinton record and plans. He contrasted that record to an all-over-the landscape Trumpian version that has explicitly included an earlier endorsement of nuclear proliferation. Pence, in return, insisted that the current lack of a military status of forces agreement with Iraq was the mother of all sins and the progenitor of the nation's security threats, and he insisted the Iran nuclear threat remains and will come to haunt the world. Sometime off in the future, somehow.

In response to the threat of homegrown terror, Pence insisted extreme vetting of would-be Syrian refugees was the key, despite the obviously rather different focus of the question. The question was being reshaped by the contenders into how to examine the background of these would-be refugees. The homegrown man with an unscratchable itch and a handmade pressure cooker bomb quickly vanished from sight.

After a rap on the knuckles from the moderator on the order of, "children, children!" we were off to Syria. In response to that, Pence insisted the US military was just about fatally eviscerated and hollowed out, but that Trump would fix this. Somehow. Presto. Done. But Pence called for the country to come to the rescue of the people in Aleppo with safe zones. As does Kaine. So, take that, unbelievers. Safe zones. Done. Fixed.

But from Aleppo, it was just a short hop skip and a jump right back to Trump's dance through the tax code. Meanwhile, Governor Pence then went on to describe Russian leader Vladimir Putin as that "small and bullying leader of Russia". Did we hear that correctly? Isn't this the same man who the top of the ticket has an ongoing bromance with? Ah, got it. Pence explains Russia's punishment of Ukraine was all Obama's fault (and Clinton's).

The moderator, now trying even harder to keep this discussion under a semblance of control, asked how the respective candidates would deal with North Korean nuclear ambitions. And that was the open door, somehow, for Gov. Pence to discuss the Clinton Foundation as a "pay for play" shell game -- leading Kaine, in turn, to pick up on the dubious record of the Trump Foundation. Oops, lost North Korea somewhere on that round.

On the role of faith, Kaine reviewed his personal history, rooted in a Jesuit Catholic education and his own internal struggle over the church's teachings against the death penalty and Virginia state law authorising it, when he was governor there. For Pence the core question came through the acrimonious debate over the "right to life" versus the right to abortion and a woman's control over their own bodies. That became an opening to take a swipe against the Clinton policy in favour of government funding for birth control and abortion counselling -- and her endorsement of the historic Supreme Court ruling, Roe v Wade -- and it was a chance to attempt to show a gap between the two Democratic candidates' respective positions.

As a final question, when asked how the candidates would bring the nation back together after a divisive campaign, Kaine reviewed Hillary Clinton's record as a senator working across the partisan divide on a variety of issues. Pence offered that in a challenging environment of Obama's record of economic utter failure and shrunken foreign respect, Donald Trump would make America great again. So there!

In retrospect, Governor Pence smoothly spoke to the promise of Trumpian change, while Senator Kaine kept hammering away at Trump's eccentricities or worse, and Pence kept slip-sliding away from a sustained defense of those same Trumpian views and statements. Overall, Pence seemed to represent a rather different set of policies than his own running mate. In effect it became a kind of a debate between standard conservative Republicanism versus Trumpian populist nationalism.

And the bottom line? Veteran reporter and CNN analyst Gloria Borger judged that Pence was significantly better at attacking Hillary Clinton than he was in defending his own ticket's presidential candidate. Remember, too, Mike Pence had that experience as a radio talk show host that gave him a clear point in the smoothness stakes. So, let's call it something of a draw (although initial polling gave the edge to Pence) that probably did not move the needle much one way or the other. That said, it is quite possible that Mike Pence did himself a very big favour in the 2020 presidential sweepstakes, assuming the Republicans lose the race in 2016. Losers thus are all other potential challengers for the Republican nomination four years from now.

Now it is on to Washington University in St Louis on Sunday night where the two presidential candidates will face each other in a town hall meeting format. And there the needle may move.

- Daily Maverick