From Washington Examiner
Whether he meant to or not, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence may have positioned himself this week as the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination the next time it becomes available, four to eight years in advance.
Over the course of 90 minutes in Tuesday’s vice presidential debate, Pence accomplished what Donald Trump failed to do in front of an audience of 84 million a week prior. With a warm smile and a steady tone, the mild-mannered Midwesterner carefully and methodically built his case against Hillary Clinton, against her running mate Tim Kaine and against the progressive policy package the Democratic duo has relentlessly championed.
Despite his opponent’s incessant interruptions (72 in total, according to the Republican National Committee’s count), Pence pressed on and reminded voters of the character flaws and policy failures of the woman Kaine had come ready to defend.
And unlike the Virginia senator, who described himself as “Hillary Clinton’s right-hand person” during the first five minutes of the debate, Pence offered broad defenses of Trump’s policies — including his restrictive immigration proposals and economic populism — instead of squarely defending Trump himself.
It was an interesting and perhaps unexpected strategy, considering Pence’s primary duty on the campaign trail has been to control the damage when Trump chooses to veer sharply off message. Said Roll Call’s Patricia Murphy in her reaction to the Indiana governor’s performance: “Pence just won the Iowa caucuses.”
“Pence managed his 90-minute career comeback with a combination of a broadcast-quality performance and a shrewd political strategy of not even trying to defend much of the record of his own running mate, Donald Trump,” Murphy wrote Wednesday morning.
But it wasn’t just Murphy who saw Pence’s debate showing as the perfect launchpad for a 2020 presidential bid. Pence’s second accomplishment Tuesday night was bringing optimism to anti-Trump Republicans who anticipate a Clinton landslide in November and have come to view the GOP as damaged beyond repair.
“I must retract my prior tweet from months ago about Pence being disqualified in 2020 by saying yes to Trump. He’s really redeemed himself,” tweeted Erick Erickson, a prominent “Never Trump” Republican who plotted to block the billionaire from becoming the nominee at the GOP convention in July.
Former Ted Cruz communications director Rick Tyler called Pence’s performance “significant,” telling the Washington Examiner it was a “refreshing reminder that there is still room for civility and humility in the political space.”
“It was as if you suddenly remembered, ‘Oh right, this is what it feels like when you have a candidate who knows how to debate, knows the issues and sounds like a Republican,'” one establishment Republican leader told CNN.
Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, who never explicitly endorsed Trump but has routinely complimented him on his program, gushed over Pence’s performance during an interview with the Indiana governor on Wednesday: “I really do believe that we need to make America more like Mike Pence again. That’s what I think after watching you last night. If American politics was what you were last night then you would have a lot more people with a lot more faith and trust in it.”
“I’m just staggered by that,” Pence responded, seemingly speechless.
Pence spent 12 years in Congress before choosing to run for governor in 2012, and briefly flirted with launching a White House bid last spring. Though he ultimately passed on running for president, some wondered if Pence’s debate strategy was deliberate: Did he decline to defend Trump’s missteps out of interest in his own 2020 prospects?
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