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5 Highlights From the Vice Presidential Debate

The most notable moments from Tuesday night's clash between Tim Kaine and Mike Pence.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

For many viewers, Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia, represented a potential reprieve from what has been a bizarre presidential campaign dominated by the outsized presence of Donald Trump. Both Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia and Governor Mike Pence of Indiana are conventional politicians who hold a general appeal for their respective constituencies and have solid records in legislative and executive offices at the local, state and national level.

But despite the fact that more than 40 percent of Americans can’t name either vice presidential candidate, there were big expectations of both, especially Pence. Since the last presidential debate, the Trump team has been plagued by the backlash from his sexist attacks on former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, and the revelation that Trump may have avoided paying taxes for two decades. So Pence had the joyless task of both defending Trump and making his views seem more palatable to undecided and conservative voters.

In the meantime, the small five-point gain made by Hillary Clinton in the post-presidential debate polls was below the expectation of a campaign that should be blowing the opposition out of the water. Kaine’s task tonight was to continue to gain ground against Trump, as well as successfully defend Clinton on issues not raised at the first presidential debate, including the controversies surrounding the Clinton Foundation, the Benghazi attack, and her private email server.

While all eyes were on moderator Lester Holt during the last debate, this debate presented a rare opportunity for moderator Elaine Quijano of CBS News, who made history as the first Asian-American journalist to moderate a national debate. Below are five of the most memorable moments of the night.

Kaine’s Strategy: Nail Trump to Mike Pence’s Hide

From the opening questions about Clinton’s record and trustworthiness, Kaine pivoted right away to attack Trump, highlighting his sexist and racist comments. He then targeted Pence, saying, “I can’t imagine how Governor Pence can defend the insult-driven, selfish, ‘me first’ style of Donald Trump.” He added insult to injury by calling Pence a mere extension of Trump: “You are Trump’s apprentice.”

Kaine was doing what he was expected to do: keep the debate’s focus on Trump’s character and weaken Pence’s attempts to put a reasonable face on the campaign. The line didn’t jar Pence, but Kaine continued in this vein throughout the evening.

Trump’s Taxes Catch Up to Pence

The question of Trump’s taxes continues to loom over his campaign. Since his promise a year ago to release the taxes if he chose to run, his decision not to honor his word has led to speculation about what exactly he is hiding. The New York Times gave a glimpse three days ago when it reported he may have avoided paying income taxes for some 18 years. Given all of this, the expectation was that Pence would come into the debate with a prepared answer about the taxes. And yet his response was incoherent. As The New Republic’s Alex Shephard noted, Pence argued that Trump’s gaming of the tax code was proof of his brilliant entrepreneurship, while also arguing that his gaming of the tax code was proof of his resilience when his entrepreneurship failed him. And on a basic level, Pence didn’t really answer the question of when Trump is going to release his tax returns.

Pence Accuses Kaine of an “Avalanche of Insults”

In response to Kaine’s repeated attempts to link Trump with Vladimir Putin and to bring up Trump’s long-running birther conspiracy, Pence fired back that the Clinton campaign had launched an “avalanche of insults,” a phrase he also used after the first presidential debate. Kaine, of course, was only reciting things Trump has done and said.

The Trump campaign has tried to flip Trump’s predilection for insults by pinning the antagonistic tone of the race on Clinton’s “insult-driven” campaign. However, as Kaine pointed out, it is Trump who calls women “slobs,” says African Americans are “living in hell,” and questions the ability of Mexican-American judges to do their jobs based on their ancestry.

Implicit Bias Vs. “Law & Order”

Throughout the campaign, Trump has echoed the theme of “Law and Order” from Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign, a traditional dog whistle that Trump has turned into a blaring siren. Pence chose the traditional route in the debate—a clear pitch to a conservative base that is wary of Black Lives Matter and the movements to heighten scrutiny of police behavior. Tonight, as The New Republic’s Nicole Narea wrote, “Pence was slicker and more effective at communicating Trump’s policies than the candidate himself,” dismissing implicit bias and institutional racism as “a wild fantasy of the left.”

Debate Moderator Elaine Quijano Was Very Eager to Move On

While Kaine and Pence interrupted each other every chance they could, Quijano repeatedly demonstrated that she was more intent on keeping to the debate schedule than letting the vice presidential candidates engage the topic at hand. While there were ten minutes slated for each question, the sheer breadth of the topics that Quijano had selected was overwhelming, and included those that seemed peripheral to this election. As The New Republic’s Alex Shepard wrote, this made Quijano more of a stopwatch than moderator, as she cut off candidates just as they were beginning to dig into the substance of an issue, like Donald Trump’s taxes. In a debate like this one, where two highly prepared candidates were going head to head, it might have been better to just let them hash it out.