FARMVILLE, Va. ― When your nominee is Donald Trump, you don’t get many chances to argue that your ticket is the calm, cool and collected one.
So when an opening presented itself Tuesday night, Republicans pounced.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) spent most of the only vice presidential debate here hammering each other’s running mates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. With Kaine playing the role of Clinton’s attack dog ― and often interrupting both his opponent and the moderator, Elaine Quijano ― Trump campaign operatives leveled a charge that they’re more accustomed to fielding.
Their opponent, they claimed, wasn’t acting very presidential.
“I’d use the word ‘unhinged,’ probably, [to describe] Sen. Kaine,” Sarah Huckabee, a Trump campaign spokeswoman, said after the debate. “I think that would probably be the best word to describe him tonight. He didn’t seem very cool or calm or relaxed throughout the entire time. In contrast, I thought Gov. Pence did and was a very steady and solid leader throughout the debate.”
It was inevitable that the vice presidential debate would focus on Trump and Clinton, two extraordinarily polarizing political figures, rather than their running mates who were actually on the stage. After briefly going through their own qualifications for standing a heartbeat away from the highest office in the land, both men spent most of their time attacking and defending the candidates at the top of their tickets.
But afterward, Republicans tried to argue that the debate revealed something about temperament.
Huckabee’s use of the descriptor “unhinged” wasn’t random. That’s the same word that Clinton’s campaign has used to describe Trump in recent days, after he needlessly feuded with Alicia Machado, a former Miss Universe contestant whom he once called “Miss Piggy” for gaining weight. That episode was part of a disastrous week for Trump that also included new disclosures that he may not have paid income taxes for years.
Clinton’s campaign has used the Machado episode to argue not only that Trump is cruel but that he’s unfit for the White House.
But on Tuesday, Republicans tried to turn the tables on Democrats. Sean Spicer, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said Kaine was “clearly rattled” because, he claimed, Kaine had interrupted Pence and the moderator 64 times. And Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, said it seemed like Kaine wasn’t “prepared for the format.”
“He didn’t understand when you’re asked a question ― I learned this in kindergarten ― you give the other person time to answer also,” Conway said. “It really did not make for very good television.”
Kaine often interjected in order to remind Pence ― not to mention millions of viewers at home ― of Trump’s litany of offensive and outrageous comments over the years. He referred, again and again, to Trump’s smear of Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and to his denigration of women as pigs or dogs. “You can’t have someone on the top who demeans everybody,” Kaine said at one point.
Democrats said there was nothing out of line about Kaine’s aggressiveness.
“His job was to hold Mike Pence accountable,” said Karen Finney, a Clinton campaign spokeswoman. “Obviously, there were some heated exchanges. Mike Pence jumped in here as well. But again, I think when people take a look at what happened here ... he held Trump and Pence’s feet to the fire.”
And yet Kaine’s constant reminders of Trump’s loose mouth managed to rattle Pence. Kaine brought up Trump’s reference to immigrants as “rapists” so many times that Pence seemed he couldn’t take it any longer. It prompted him to utter one of the most memorable, and awkward, lines of the night: “You whipped out that Mexican thing again,” he said incredulously.
Clinton backer Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) said that line, more than any other, stuck with him after the debate.
“There is going to be a lot of Latinos out there, especially on my Mexican side of the family, that are going to be extremely insulted by that,” he predicted.
Gallego said Kaine’s approach was “very strategic” and succeeded in making Pence seem unable to defend things Trump has said. He dismissed the idea that it might put people off to see the vice presidential nominee being so aggressive.
“It doesn’t matter at the end of the day,” he said. “This is about the presidency, and I think [the debate] is going to show there’s no change in the trajectory.”
Then why hold a vice presidential debate at all?
Gallego smiled and said nothing.