Critic's Notebook: Mike Pence Scores on Style, Tim Kaine on Substance in Combative VP Debate

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Tim Kaine fulfilled his role as attack dog for Hillary Clinton, while Pence played defense with more skill than Donald Trump.

Anyone watching the debate between vice presidential candidates Tim Kaine and Mike Pence with the sound turned off would probably declare Pence the winner. The Indiana governor simply looked more presidential, as if carved in granite. Even his hair was disciplined. He smiled bemusedly when Kaine attacked Donald Trump, which was every 10 seconds. And he would often stare directly into the camera, as if gently trying to reassure those viewers at home terrified of a Trump presidency.

Kaine, on the other hand, was a bit manic, constantly interrupting not only his opponent but also the moderator, CBS News' Elaine Quijano. The Virginia senator frequently seemed to be looking away when Pence was talking (possibly a result of bad camera angles), like he was desperately searching for a way off the stage.

Not many people seem to care very much about the two candidates, with a recent ABC poll revealing that over 40 percent of Americans can't even identify who the VP nominees are. NBC News helpfully provided biographical stats about the two men while they were speaking, as if they were competing for Miss America. But voters should be paying more attention, since both presidential candidates are either 70 years old or pushing it. Despite the medical reports describing him as a pinnacle of health, the perpetually red-faced, bloated Trump looks like a walking time bomb. And Hillary … well, we've all seen the footage.

Both Kaine and Pence fulfilled their assigned tasks, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Pence — who had so much about Trump to try and clean up that he might as well have been carrying a mop and bucket, strove to be the grown-up member of the ticket. And Kaine, despite his nice-guy demeanor that makes him perpetually resemble a suburban dad wearing an apron while flipping burgers at a barbecue, was the designated attack dog.

Indeed, Kaine used the majority of his allotted time reciting Trump's words, not his own. At every opportunity, he quoted the GOP presidential nominee to damning effect. And he managed to get the issue of Trump not paying federal income tax into his answer to every question, whether it was about the national debt or Russia.

Pence dutifully refuted Kaine's lobs, but he didn't really seem to have his heart in it. He somehow managed to say with a straight face that the Clinton campaign, rather than Trump's, has been "an avalanche of insults." Commenting about the recent revelation of Trump's massive financial losses, he said that the real-estate developer had "faced some pretty tough times 20 years ago," as if Trump had nearly been evicted from the building that bears his name. He also claimed that Trump would indeed release his tax returns…just as soon as the IRS finishes its audit.

(Memo to the IRS: We all know that Trump has obviously gamed the system for years and well deserves to be audited. But how about doing us all a favor and letting it go until after the election?)

Kaine, who somehow managed to go the full 90 minutes without lapsing into Spanish — those viewers at home playing the drinking game sadly remained sober — had clearly rehearsed his attack lines. At one point, he told Pence, "You are Donald Trump's apprentice." He compared a possible Clinton presidency to Trump's by saying it was the difference between "you're hired and you're fired." And referring to Trump's endless verbal atrocities, he kept advising voters to "go to the tape," sounding like a television sportscaster. He also so often described Hillary as being "part of the team that killed Bin Laden" that he made it sound like she had personally led the Navy SEALs.

Pence was generally more subtle in his digs, saying to Kaine, "I look forward to working with you and the Senate", as if he had already been elected, and slyly describing his opponent as being "a very fitting running mate for Hillary Clinton."

Ultimately, Pence won on style, but not on substance. He sometimes directly contradicted his running mate, such as when he described Trump's idol Vladimir Putin as "the small and bullying leader of Russia."  When he complained to Kaine, "Tim, you whipped out that Mexican thing again," we all knew what he meant, but it still sounded obscene. Responding to Kaine's comments about Trump's wanting to privatize Social Security, he said, "There they go again," but Ronald Reagan was able to sell that sort of line far more effectively.

Like most VP debates, this one probably isn't going to move the needle, with the public instead breathlessly fixated on Sunday's upcoming Trump/Clinton rematch as if it were the Thrilla in Manila. And despite the marked differences between these veteran politicians who are hitched to the most unpopular presidential candidates in modern history, it was hard not to wonder if both of them weren't thinking the same thing: "Why aren't I at the top of the ticket?"