Pence's Debate Performance Puts Pressure on Trump

Pence's Debate Performance Puts Pressure on Trump
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The Donald Trump campaign is setting a high bar for the Republican nominee’s next debate performance.

Campaign advisers and surrogates believe the town hall format of Sunday’s forum will be advantageous for Trump, who feeds off energy from crowds, and will showcase his non-traditional campaign style. Trump is also going to rehearse for his second showdown with Hillary Clinton, after appearing unprepared in his first matchup, with a town hall Thursday night in New Hampshire. 

“Mr. Trump does very well in town halls. That’s because he connects with real people. That’s because he’s not a politician,” Jason Miller, the campaign’s communications director, said after Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate.  

The largely well-received performance by running mate Mike Pence in his matchup with Tim Kaine adds pressure to the man on the top of the ticket. The Indiana governor excelled on the debate stage in areas Trump did not -- namely, refusing his opponent’s bait and deflecting criticisms. Pence sat in stark contrast to Trump in terms of his ability to stay steady and stridently on message, and some conservatives delighted in his articulation of conservative principles and topics that have been generally ignored by the GOP nominee.

In many ways, Pence provided a map for Trump, and shifted the discussion, if even for a moment, away from the worst several days of the candidate’s campaign. The vice presidential candidate’s showing lays the groundwork for Trump, who has little room for error on delivering.

But the campaign has also been careful to draw a distinction between the two men on the GOP ticket. Asked whether Pence would be helping Trump with debate preparation or giving advice, campaign manager Kellyanne Conway told RealClearPolitics there were no plans to get the governor involved because they are different candidates with different styles and personalities. During interviews, Conway dismissed the notion of Pence upstaging the top of the ticket and argued that the governor’s performance displayed Trump’s good character judgment. 

Indeed, Trump took credit for the debate. “Mike Pence did an incredible job, and I'm getting a lot of credit,” Trump said during a campaign rally in Nevada on Wednesday, noting the governor was his “first hire” after clinching the GOP nomination. “He was cool, he was smart ... Mike had the single most decisive victory in the history of presidential debates.”

Pence played the good soldier afterward. “From where I sat, Donald Trump won the debate,” he said Wednesday, kicking off a bus tour in Virginia before routing through Pennsylvania and Ohio. 

Pence displayed his loyalty to his ticket while also buying some protection for his own future in politics, defending his running mate through deflection. He denied controversial statements made by Trump regarding women, Mexicans, nuclear weapons, and Russian aggression, among other issues. He went so far as to dismiss his own past praise of Vladimir Putin’s leadership in Russia, a statement that is easily accessible online. At the same time, he showed daylight between himself and Trump at points, calling Putin “small and bullying,” for example. But the dismissals and denials were often overshadowed by his ability to quickly turn back to prosecuting Clinton.

If Pence offered lessons in debating and preparation, it’s not clear whether and how Trump will take them. He figures to give some indication Thursday night, through an invitation-only, town hall-style forum in New Hampshire, a state he won in the primary and where he visited just last week.

While Trump gains energy from crowds at large rallies, he is less practiced at some of the more intimate town hall events. During the general election, he has participated in televised formats with Fox News host Sean Hannity, but those contained more favorable crowds and questions.  

“The town hall format ideally helps showcase a candidate's relatability,” says GOP strategist Kevin Madden, who was a top adviser for the Mitt Romney campaign. “[Trump is] very good when it comes to connecting with large crowds and feeding off of their energy. The town hall format is more sedate. It also requires a lot of prep, and Trump has shown an aversion towards prep.”

The Trump team, though, isn’t using the candidate’s inexperience with the format to set low expectations, as campaigns typically do. Conway said on Fox News Wednesday morning that Trump will deliver a “powerful performance” on Sunday night in St. Louis. “It’s a much better format for him than Hillary Clinton. He’s more practiced dealing with people one on one. He’s going to take the case right to her.” 

The more intimate and personality-revealing format could pose challenges for Trump, who has talked about raising the specter of former President Bill Clinton’s infidelities. He will have to answer questions from voters who may not agree with him or support him. The setting also places an emphasis on body language and movement around the stage.

The Clinton campaign, seeing an uptick in polling after the first debate, is helping to set the higher expectations for Trump.

“We are expecting him to be better prepared for the next debate,” campaign manager Robby Mook said Tuesday night. “We know that there is a calm, cool, and collected Donald Trump that can show up, and we expect that that’s what will happen. He has stated that he will make all sorts of … attacks. We actually don’t expect that. We think that he understands that that is not the right strategy.” 

Emily Goodin contributed to this report.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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