FARMVILLE, Va. – From the opening moments of their debate here at Longwood University, Tim Kaine constantly attacked Donald Trump, while Mike Pence defended his running mate and slammed Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy and private e-mail server.
Within 10 minutes, they were talking over each other, running roughshod over moderator Elaine Quijano. And she allowed the debate to keep careening out of control, with the candidates at one point clashing over who was running the more insult-driven campaign. The moderator especially let Kaine cut off Pence far too often when it was the Republican’s turn to talk.
The rat-a-tat nature of the rhetoric made it hard to pick a winner.
Kaine was more aggressive, but his high-velocity denunciations of Trump sounded forced and scripted at times. Pence, more often playing defense, spoke at a more measured clip, needled Clinton, let some attacks go by, and at one point even uttered a Reaganesque “there you go again.”
These were two usually polite politicians on a mission, to rough up the other side.
Kaine, asked whether many people distrust Hillary because of the email scandal and Clinton Foundation, said she has “a passion” in her life then pivoted to attacking Trump over birtherism and his speech about Mexican rapists.
Pence accused the Clinton team of an “avalanche of insults” and blamed her for what he cast as the Obama administration’s failures around the world.
CBS’s Quijano asked some good questions, but the candidates mostly ignored them and she made only sporadic attempts to follow up, constantly losing control and seeming to vanish.
When Quijano asked about Trump apparently paying federal income taxes, the Indiana governor blew off the question and assailed Clinton’s platform as more taxes, more spending and more government. When Quijano tried again, Pence said “Donald Trump is a businessman, not a career politician” and went on to say he had “created tens of thousands of jobs.”
The Virginia senator, playing on his home turf, shot back by invoking Trump’s debate remark that it was “smart” to avoid taxes, asking whether it was smart not to contribute toward the military, veterans and teachers.
In this bizarre campaign season, this was never really a contest about who would make the best vice president, but rather who could more aggressively attack the other guy’s running mate while defending his own.
Pence had the tougher task, knowing full well he would be pushed to defend all manner of Trumpian statements—and with The Donald live-tweeting from the sidelines. Notwithstanding the RNC accidentally posting a page declaring Pence the winner in advance, that was not the foreordained outcome.
The reason the debate drew little advance media buildup stems in part from the way the top of the ticket is dominating the news.
They are low-key, low-risk politicians who generate few headlines on their own.
But an even bigger factor is that, despite the first question from Quijano, there is no question these two men are qualified for the No. 2 job, and to move into the Oval Office if necessary. Kaine is a senator who’s also been a governor and mayor. Pence is a governor who’s also been a congressman. There is no drumbeat about them being a heartbeat away.
Unlike in past years, when critics questioned the qualifications of Sarah Palin, John Edwards, Dan Quayle and Geraldine Ferraro, these guys cleared the bar the minute they were named.
What’s more, the two men remain hazy figures for VP nominees, generating mostly apathy. In a Politico/Morning Consult poll, 41 percent of those surveyed said they didn’t know or had no opinion of Kaine, while 30 percent each said they viewed him favorably or unfavorably.
As for Pence, one third said they didn’t know or had no opinion of him, while 35 percent viewed him favorably and 32 percent unfavorably.
There was so much crosstalk in the debate that it became difficult to follow at times. Even when Pence tried to slow down with a thoughtful answer about police shootings, it quickly degenerated into squabbling over why Clinton had spoken of “implicit bias” after a black officer shot a black resident in Charlotte.
Kaine was so determined to deliver his litany of assaults on Trump that he kept rattling them off regardless of the question: Called women dogs, pigs and slobs, insulted John McCain, attacked the Mexican-American judge in the Trump University case, tweeted against Miss Universe. The governor noted that Clinton had ripped half of Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables.”
Pence brought up Clinton’s private server late in the evening, while discussing cybersecurity, leaving Kaine to fall back on the line that “not one reasonable prosecutor” would bring the criminal case declined by the FBI. Pence also argued against conflicts involving the Clinton Foundation, with his opponent firing back at the Trump Foundation.
Kaine engaged in some rhetorical stretches. Kaine invoked the 9/11 attack, that Clinton tried to get federal funding for New York while Trump was fighting to avoid paying taxes. Pence countered that “Donald Trump supports our troops” and started to say Trump paid what was legally required when he was cut off yet again.
After one Kaine attack involving nuclear weapons, a seemingly weary Pence said: “Senator, that was even beneath you and Hillary Clinton, and that’s pretty low.”
The more Kaine spoke, the more he interrupted, the less force his attacks carried. Pence overdid the exasperation at times, but as a former radio talk show host, his pacing wore better as the event dragged on.
Of course, the debate wasn’t really about them, but about the running mates who weren’t there.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.