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VP Candidates Kaine, Pence Strike Surprising Tone In Their Only Debate


And I'm David Greene in Phoenix, Ariz. We're here at member station KPCC as part of our project, Divided States. Yesterday, we introduced you to four different voters. Today, we are bringing all of them into the studio here with us to see what they thought of last night's vice presidential debate. Now, Arizona usually votes Republican. This is the state of the Grand Canyon, known for its desert, wide-open land, its freedoms. This year, though, Democrats decided the state was enough in play that they began pouring money into Arizona, and that's why we are here the morning after the one and only vice presidential debate, which took place in Farmville, Va., last night.


ELAINE QUIJANO: It's an honor to moderate this debate between Senator Tim Kaine and Governor Mike Pence. Both are longtime public servants who are also proud fathers of sons serving in the U.S. Marines. We welcome Governor Mike Pence and Senator Tim Kaine.


GREENE: Elaine Quijano from CBS News, the moderator, introducing the two candidates last night. Now, in our studio in Washington, D.C., this morning, we have Democratic pollster Margie Omero and Republican analyst John Feehery. Welcome back to the program to you both.

MARGIE OMERO: Good morning.

JOHN FEEHERY: Good morning.

GREENE: We're going to hear a lot from this debate, but let me just ask you first - and I'll start with you, Margie - were you surprised that this - these two vice presidential candidates really came out sparring last night?

OMERO: Yeah, I guess it went a little bit against this sort of mild dad debate that people were expecting. But, you know, they came ready to do their job. For Kaine, it was to really highlight the challenges of Donald Trump and all of his various vulnerabilities. And for Pence, it was to completely sidestep or - or evade talk of Donald Trump's vulnerabilities.

GREENE: John, you agree with that?

FEEHERY: I do. I was surprised by - that Tim Kaine didn't learn from Donald Trump that interrupting can seem to the viewers to be rude 'cause he kept interrupting, especially in the first couple of minutes, in a way that was off-putting as your first introduction to Tim Kaine, and I thought that was kind of a bad strategy on his part. I thought Pence came off pretty smooth, although I - he did do a good job of soon distancing himself from Donald Trump on a continual basis.

GREENE: OK, well, let's hear a lot of what you both are talking about. We're going to turn to our national political correspondent, Mara Liasson, who says that the tone of the debate really was a surprise.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The vice presidential debate was expected to be pretty sleepy, but instead both Tim Kaine and Mike Pence turned into the attack dogs they haven't been for most of the campaign. Kaine was aggressive from the start.


TIM KAINE: I'll just say this - we trust Hillary Clinton, my wife and I, and we trust her with the most important thing in our life. We have a son deployed overseas in the Marine Corps right now. We trust Hillary Clinton as president and commander-in-chief. But the thought of Donald Trump as commander-in-chief scares us to death.

LIASSON: The moderator, Elaine Quijano of CBS News, asked both vice presidential candidates why big majorities of voters have such low opinions of their running mates.


MIKE PENCE: Look, to get - to get to your question about trustworthiness, Donald Trump has built a business through hard times and through good times. He's brought an extraordinary acumen. He's employed tens of thousands of people in this country and built, literally, a global reputation.

KAINE: And paid few taxes and lost a billion dollars a year.

QUIJANO: But why the disconnect with your running mates?

PENCE: But there's a - there's a reason why people question the trustworthiness of Hillary Clinton. And that's because they're paying attention. I mean, the reality is, when she was secretary of state, Senator - come on - she had a Clinton Foundation accepting contributions from foreign governments.

KAINE: You are Donald Trump's apprentice. Let me talk about this issue.

LIASSON: There were lots of interruptions, most of them from Kaine, who had a clear strategy - to bring up every outrageous thing Donald Trump has said and dare Mike Pence to defend them.


KAINE: I just want to talk about the tone that's set from the top. Donald Trump, during his campaign, has called Mexicans rapists and criminals. He's called women slobs, pigs, dogs, disgusting. I don't like saying that in front of my wife and my mother.

He attacked an Indiana-born federal judge and said he was unqualified to hear a federal lawsuit because his parents were Mexican. He went after John McCain, a POW, and said he wasn't a hero because he had been captured. He said African-Americans are living in hell. And he perpetrated this outrageous and bigoted lie that President Obama is not a U.S. citizen.

If you want to have a society where people are respected and respect laws, you can't have somebody at the top who demeans every group that he talks about. And I just - again, I cannot believe that Governor Pence will defend the insult-driven campaign that Donald Trump has run.

KAINE: For the most part, Pence didn't take the bait. He ignored, deflected or tried to turn the tables on Kaine's barbs.


PENCE: I was listening to the avalanche of insults coming out of Senator Kaine a minute ago.

KAINE: These - these were Donald...

PENCE: And he said - he says...

KAINE: Hold on a second, Governor.

PENCE: It's my time, Senator.

QUIJANO: It is, in fact, the Governor's time.

KAINE: It is. You're right. I apologize. This is your two minutes.

PENCE: Thanks. I forgive you. He says ours is an insult-driven campaign. Did you all just hear that? Ours is an insult-driven campaign? I mean, to be honest with you, if Donald Trump had said all the things that you said he said in the way you said he said them, he still wouldn't have a fraction of the insults that Hillary Clinton leveled when she said that half of our supporters were a basket of deplorables. It's - she said they were irredeemable, they were not American.

LIASSON: Just as Pence was trying to argue that it was the Clinton campaign that was insult-driven, Donald Trump was tweeting insults, including one that made fun of Kaine's looks. Kaine looks like an evil crook out of the Batman movies, Trump retweeted. Several times during the debate, Pence called for policies that Trump has never taken, such as American military intervention in Syria.

Pence also tried to reinterpret some of Trump's statements, sanding down their rough edges and making them sound a lot more mainstream. Here's an exchange about Vladimir Putin, for whom Trump has often expressed admiration.


PENCE: When Donald Trump and I observe that, as I've said, in Syria, in Iran, in Ukraine that the small and bullying leader of Russia has been stronger on the world stage than this administration, that's - that's stating painful facts. That's not an endorsement of Vladimir Putin. That's an indictment of the weak and feckless leadership of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

KAINE: Well, this is one where you can just kind of go to the tape on it, but Governor Pence said, inarguably, Vladimir Putin is a better leader than President Obama.

PENCE: You're - that is absolutely inaccurate.

KAINE: And I just think a guy who praises...

PENCE: I said he's a stronger - he's been stronger on the world stage.

KAINE: No, you said leader.

PENCE: I didn't.

KAINE: And I'll just say this, Governor...

PENCE: I just said better.

KAINE: ...If you mistake leadership for dictatorship and you can't tell the difference, a country that's running its economy into the ground...

PENCE: Yeah, here we go. This is the grade-school thing again?

KAINE: ....Persecuting journalists.

PENCE: Right, this is grade school.

KAINE: If you can't tell the difference, you shouldn't be commander-in-chief.

LIASSON: For the most part, both men accomplished what they came to do last night. Kaine kept the spotlight off Hillary Clinton and on Donald Trump. And although Pence probably didn't change the dynamic of the race last night, he did give a polished performance that will help reassure Republicans despondent over Trump's poor showing in the first debate.

And Pence did himself some good, too, boosting his profile for the next Republican nominating fight. On Sunday, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will meet for their second debate - a town-hall style forum in St. Louis.

GREENE: OK, that was NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Let's talk more with Democratic pollster Margie Omero and Republican analyst John Feehery. John, let me ask you this - Mara said there that Governor Pence called for policies that Donald Trump has not himself taken, Kaine trying to paint Pence as someone who doesn't even try to defend his candidate's record. I mean, are they true running mates, Trump and Pence?

FEEHERY: I think so. I mean, I do think that Mike Pence did a world of good for Donald Trump in the sense that he reassured conservatives that this is a ticket you could support. Even if you have some issues with Donald Trump, which a lot of Republicans do, you like Mike Pence, and that's part of the same team.

And even, you know, by sanding out some of those rough edges, it does help the - some of the inarticulateness of Donald Trump in a way that - you know, you need a professional like Mike Pence doing that, because otherwise the whole ticket goes spinning out of control.

GREENE: Well, Margie, from - from the Clinton side, I mean, Hillary Clinton has been trying very hard to paint Donald Trump as unfit to be president. Did Governor Pence do some good work for Donald Trump in, you know, letting people sort of feel the possibility that he could be a president of the United States?

OMERO: I mean, I think what he was able to do is take a little bit of the heat off of Trump's downward spiral that he's been having for the last week for a day or two. But the only way that Pence can make a convincing-sounding argument about Trump is to deny all the things that Trump has actually said.

I mean, he's more comfortable doing that than, for example, someone like Senator Kelly Ayotte from New Hampshire, who had a very bad day the last day or two trying to distance herself from Trump.

Pence has - does - is more comfortable trying to split the hairs there, but he can only do it by saying, well, Trump didn't say that or I don't know what you're talking about, when - when every fact-checker and all the records show that Trump has said a lot of these things about Putin and about Mexicans and about women. I mean, these things are, you know, facts that are, really, beyond dispute.

GREENE: Margie, what did Senator Kaine do for Secretary Clinton? I mean, we talked about that - that he interrupted a lot, but what do you think he accomplished?

OMERO: Well, I think he demonstrated that they are aligned in their views toward - certainly toward the Trump ticket and their views toward policy and that they share a lot of world views and that they're working together, that there isn't daylight between them, compared to what you see on the other side, and by also just, you know, continue - not letting up the pressure off of Trump/Pence. I mean, Pence may be smooth. He may be a practiced debater. But it still doesn't really take away from the fact that - that the top of the ticket is completely unfit to lead. And so making sure that - that we're, you know, being constantly reminded of that is - is important for everybody - you know, for everybody working with - with Hillary Clinton.

GREENE: OK, Democratic pollster Margie Omero and Republican analyst John Feehery. Thank you both so much, as always.

OMERO: Thank you.

FEEHERY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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