-- A campaign that’s often been about nothing was about plenty of somethings Tuesday night.
But a vice-presidential debate marred by interruptions and bitter accusations may add up to not much at all. The expected turn to policy didn’t really materialize, crumbling under waves of rehearsed one-liners and crosstalk.
Mike Pence came in eager to change the subject, and may well have succeeded. Tim Kaine came in mostly, well, eager -- playing aggressor in a debate that hinged on blaming the people at the top of the ticket for many of the nation’s woes.
Kaine set his tone early, with digs aimed at Donald Trump’s old “Apprentice” persona, hits on his tax payments -- and plenty of reminders of the insults Trump has hurled at various comers.
“Donald Trump can’t start a Twitter war with Miss Universe without shooting himself in the foot,” Kaine said, tying Trump’s temperament to his suitability to serve as commander-in-chief.
Pence appeared frustrated with Kaine, whose interruptions dominated the flow of discussion. But -- in stark contrast to Trump eight days ago -- he mostly avoided taking Kaine’s bait.
“Did you work on that one a long time? Because that one had a lot of creative lines in it,” Pence said at one point, after Kaine launched an attack on Trump on foreign policy.
Kaine appeared intent on keeping the pressure on Pence, to make the campaign about Trump, his words, and his record. Kaine repeatedly challenged Pence to defend his running mate -- and did some name-calling of his own, while decrying the same from Trump.
“Ronald Reagan said something interesting about nuclear proliferation back in the 1980s. He said the problem with nuclear proliferation is that some fool or maniac could trigger a catastrophic event,” Kaine said. “And I think that's who Gov. Pence's running mate is -- exactly who Ronald Reagan warned us of.”
Even a Reagan reference didn’t cause Pence to break stride.
“Senator, that's below you and Hillary Clinton,” he responded. “That was low.”
Pence projected the calmer persona, while building his case against Hillary Clinton and her running mate. When Pence brought up Trump’s taxes -- for at least the third time -- Pence said, “I understand why you want to change the subject.”
Pence attacked what he called “the weak and feckless foreign policy of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.”
“The United States of America needs to begin to exercise strong leadership,” Pence said.
Pence didn’t spend much time defending Trump, despite Kaine’s repeated challenges. He appeared to break with Trump on a few key issues, including immigration and Russia, at least rhetorically.
But Kaine didn’t spend much time defending Clinton, either. His aim was to continue to make the campaign all about Trump -- fertile ground for the Clinton camp so far.
The running mates are unusually low-profile this year, perhaps owing to the outsized personas of Clinton and Trump, and the complicated reasons for the vice-presidential selections.
Voters looking to the running mates to lift up the conversation at their highest-profile appearance would have to keep looking. More time was spent tagging each other with their running mates’ scandals and missteps than on touting their respective visions.
Pence won’t be able to sand away Trump’s rougher edges over the final two presidential debates, and the final five weeks of the campaign. But he may have steadied his ticket’s slide -- even, at the end, knitting together some optimism for Trump.
“The best way that we can bring people together is through change in Washington, D.C.” Pence said. “The potential is there.”