Kaine, Pence prepare for vice-presidential debate

Tuesday's vice-presidential debate can shed light on whether the No. 2 candidates are up to the job
Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, left, and Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia will debate Tuesday night.
Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, left, and Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia will debate Tuesday night.

Exactly a week before Tuesday’s vice-presidential debate, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana hunkered down with a small coterie of aides for his first full day of intensive debate preparation.

His team reserved rooms on the second floor of the Sheraton hotel in Madison, Wisconsin, and Scott Walker — the state’s mild-mannered, affable governor — arrived to play Pence’s rival, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, in mock debate sessions.

Soon after, the actual Kaine left the campaign trail himself to huddle with advisers near Raleigh, North Carolina, for his own debate prep. A nearby bluegrass festival offered what seemed like a tempting distraction for the harmonica-playing senator, but Kaine stayed out of sight.

Last week hardly marked the first time the two men had devoted considerable time and attention to Tuesday’s debate at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia. For both Kaine and Pence, the vice-presidential debate, moderated by CBS News’ Elaine Quijano, will be their lone one-on-one face-off this election, and is the most high-profile and highly anticipated moment of their political careers so far.

The debate can shed light on whether the No. 2 candidates are up to the job of being No. 1. But beyond showing their own mettle, the vice-presidential candidates also have the task of defending their running mates — an especially critical job this time around with such an intense focus on the top of the ticket.

“Don’t screw up — that’s the goal of a VP debate,” said Brett O’Donnell, a Republican communications specialist who advised prominent Republican nominees — including President George W. Bush, Sen. John McCain and Gov. Mitt Romney — on debate preparation. “The big thing is to defend the top of the ticket and then go on the offensive as much as possible against your opponent — the top of the ticket on the other side.”

For Pence, the key challenge is to defend Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, over some of his more outlandish comments, while also acquitting himself well as a reasonable, levelheaded conservative who could help rebuild the party whether Trump wins or loses.

Indeed, since his selection as a running mate, much of Pence’s job has been to help explain or clean up Trump’s persona. Yet he has distanced himself in some important instances, including suggesting humans play a role in climate change — an acknowledgment on the part of his aides that a political future inextricably tied to Trump could be perilous.

Pence already has experience defending his running mate on the Sunday news shows and in other television interviews, which aides say has also helped prepare him for the debate.

“Ultimately, he’s going to have to explain Trump to people, and his job is probably going to be to mop up whatever mistakes Trump makes and explain Trump and be the guy who says, ‘Trump’s a good guy and he’s not crazy,’” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist who is not working for the campaign.

But, Feehery added, though Pence has revealed himself as a loyal soldier, he is also likely to display at least some instinct of self-preservation. “Part of it is to explain Trump but not necessarily fall on your sword for him,” Feehery said.

To that end, Kaine’s task is more straightforward.

Kaine has already faced some tough questions about Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, on subjects like her use of a private email server and her trustworthiness. But he has not been forced to play cleanup the way Pence has.

On the campaign trail, Kaine cheerfully talks up Clinton’s agenda while building a thorough case against Trump on a variety of subjects, from his refusal to release his tax returns to his views on foreign affairs. The debate offers a platform to do the same thing — just on a much bigger and more pressure-filled stage.

“It is going to be easier for him than it is for Mike Pence,” said Mo Elleithee, who advised Kaine when he ran for governor and senator and also worked on Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid. “Kaine genuinely, I think, shares Hillary Clinton’s worldview.”

“I would expect Kaine is going to be hitting a lot of the same themes that Hillary Clinton hit in the last debate,” added Elleithee, who is now the executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service.

Kaine has prepared to fend off what his advisers expect will be aggressive attacks by Pence aimed at Clinton, according to campaign aides. And his team is wondering how far Pence will go in defending Trump.

Kaine does not devote much time to talking about Pence when he campaigns, and his focus on the top of the ticket is not likely to change Tuesday night.

“It really is more about Donald Trump than it is about Gov. Pence,” Kaine told reporters on his campaign plane recently, discussing the vice-presidential debate.

Similarly, Kaine is set to promote what a Clinton presidency would look like. “If I talk too much about Tim Kaine during my debate,” he said, “I’m wasting my time.”

If Trump’s debate preparation so far has largely resembled his campaign — haphazard and unfocused — Pence’s reflects his sharply different approach: methodical, disciplined and systematic.

He and his team began preparing for the debate shortly before Labor Day, and each week have devoted an increasing amount of time to the effort. (Fridays, which Pence typically spends off the trail and in the Indiana governor’s mansion, have become largely focused on debate preparation.)

He has been studying briefing books, and dossiers on his laptop. The Republican National Committee has also uploaded copious videos of Kaine — everything from interviews to past debates — to an online file-sharing service for Pence to view.

The Clinton team has revealed little about Kaine’s preparations, though Kaine talked a few weeks ago about reading “endless debate prep memos,” a subject that he said Clinton had joked to him about. “She said, ‘You know, our staffs know how to kill a lot of trees by putting together massive books,’” he said.

In Kaine’s mock debate sessions, Pence is being played by Robert B. Barnett, a Washington lawyer who has long served as a faux adversary in debate preparations for presidential and vice-presidential candidates. Earlier in the campaign, he played Sen. Bernie Sanders when Clinton practiced to debate him.

Jerry Kilgore, a Republican who ran against Kaine for governor in 2005, said he found debating Kaine a frustrating experience.

“He’s absolutely going to come off as believable with everything he says,” Kilgore said. “He says everything with such sincerity.” He added that Kaine came across that way whether or not Kaine was being completely forthright.

“That’s the danger Gov. Pence has in this debate,” said Kilgore, a former Virginia attorney general.

When Pence accepted the No. 2 slot, he and his team outlined three milestones they believed would require flawless execution: his initial rollout, his convention speech and the debate. The same close-knit team of advisers who helped plan the first two milestones — Nick Ayers, chairman of the vice-presidential campaign; Marc Short, a senior adviser; and Josh Pitcock, the campaign’s policy director — have also been handling Pence’s preparation.

Pence’s team decided it would be smart for him to attend the Sept. 26 debate at Hofstra University — not just to cheer on Trump, but to experience the drama and atmosphere of a presidential debate, without the high-stakes pressure.

The Clinton team took a different approach. Kaine dropped by a debate watch party in Orlando, Florida, but left before the debate began.

“I wish I could actually hang and watch it with you, but I’m actually doing homework tonight,” he told the crowd. “I have to go sit down and get in the zone and with a yellow pad, you know, take a million notes.”

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