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At the VP debate, Pence did what Trump couldn't: Keep calm and deflect

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Republican Mike Pence remained steady under fire at Tuesday night's vice-presidential debate, contrasting himself from his blustery and often unpredictable running mate and prompting more than a few media outlets to deem him the winner. 

While Democrat Tim Kaine repeatedly tried to bait Pence into defending Donald Trump's controversial remarks and policies, Pence repeatedly changed the subject and stuck to his talking points.

In doing so, he displayed the sort of political discipline rank-and-file Republicans have been waiting to see from Trump -- but so far haven't gotten. 

Pence deflects attacks

Throughout the evening, Kaine challenged Pence to defend a variety of Trump's past remarks -- including when he called Mexican immigrants "rapists," when he said it wouldn't "be a bad thing" if other countries obtained nuclear weapons, and when he suggested women should be punished for having abortions, among other things.

But Pence deflected nearly every time.

For instance, when Kaine confronted Pence with Trump's past comments on nuclear weapons proliferation, Pence changed the subject to America's overall safety.

Here's the exchange:

KAINE:  I'd love to hear Governor Pence tell me what's so enjoyable or comical about nuclear war. ... I'm going to see if you can defend any of it.

PENCE:  Well, look, I can defend -- I -- I -- I can -- I can make very clear to the American people, after traveling millions of miles as our secretary of state, after being the architect of the foreign policy of this administration, America is less safe today than it was the day that Barack Obama became president of the United States. It's absolutely inarguable.

He never took the bait, never let himself get dragged into unfavorable terrain, and simply ignored subjects he didn't want to discuss.
Matthew Yglesias, Vox

Even left-leaning news outlets acknowledged Pence's deflecting skills. "Pence was tight, disciplined, and focused on his talking points," Matthew Yglesias wrote in Vox.  "It was a genuinely bravura performance, one that... GOP senators and Congress members running in tough races ought to study."

Kaine kept on the attack, which led some pundits to deem him "annoying."

Deflect well, but not defend?

Shortly after the debate ended, however, some reporters began to suspect that Trump may not have been happy with Pence's decision to deflect, rather than defend, attacks against him.

Citing a "source close to Trump," CNN's John King reported that Trump didn't enjoy the fact that many thought Pence outperformed him.

"Pence won overall, but lost with Trump," CNBC reporter John Harwood quoted a Trump adviser  as saying. "He can't stand to be upstaged."


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