Pence provides template for Trump’s make-or-break debate
Employing a low-key, Midwestern charisma, Mike Pence proved he knows how to win over an audience. The Indiana governor’s calm and direct temperament was on full display during the vice presidential debate this week, reminding his fellow Republicans of the Reaganesque era when a conservative candidate could offer a positive vision and uplifting message for America. He outlined a foreign policy of peace through strength, proposed economic solutions without raising taxes, and spoke about his faith in a poetic and genuine way — all while ignoring Democratic counterpart Tim’s Kaine’s constant poking and interrupting.
Focusing relentlessly on Hillary Clinton’s many deficiencies, Mr. Pence did what Donald Trump failed to achieve during his first debate with Mrs. Clinton. Following that dismal debate performance, Mr. Trump compounded his woes with tweets about the former Miss Universe that only exacerbated the distraction and generated a few more negative news cycles for the campaign. Polls now clearly show Mrs. Clinton leading nationally and in most of the key battleground states.
The momentum in the race has clearly shifted back to the Clinton camp, and the stakes are now so high for Mr. Trump that Sunday’s town hall event in St. Louis could well determine the fate of the November election. Mr. Trump can be quite sure that Mrs. Clinton will come equipped, scripted and looking to deliver a knockout blow.
Given the stakes, it would be wise for Mr. Trump to study closely his running mate’s performance and adopt the Pence approach to the debate:
Prepare. Practice pays off. Mr. Pence spent hours rehearsing for the debate with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, emerging well prepared to handle Mr. Kaine’s predictable attack lines. He responded directly to the camera — and the national television audience — in his measured answers. Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, contended that Mr. Trump did “practice and prepare” for the Hofstra showdown, but had to acknowledge that the GOP nominee “walked into some traps.” Mrs. Clinton is already in seclusion, once again setting aside ample time to prepare for the townhall-style debate. Mr. Trump might know the art of the deal, but he needs to learn the art of debating — and of basic debate prep.
Pivot. Mr. Trump kept getting stuck answering uncomfortable questions on unpleasant topics (his taxes, his past statements on women) and missed multiple opportunities to turn the discussion into an attack on Mrs. Clinton’s weaknesses. Ms. Conway acknowledged that Mr. Trump spent far too much time that evening “answering questions as they were asked.” The trick, as Mr. Pence repeatedly demonstrated, is to pivot to an opponent’s weakness as opposed to getting stuck on the defensive. Despite pushback from the moderator, Mr. Pence was able to bring up the Clinton Foundation’s pay-for-play scheme and her email scandal. Asked about cybersecurity, Mr. Pence responded: “We could put cybersecurity first if we just make sure the next secretary of state doesn’t have a private server,” a deft but devastating reminder to viewers why the Democrat is unqualified to be president.
Speak from the heart. Mr. Trump’s authenticity appeals to many voters, but he has not been able to reel in undecided voters, especially women and minorities. In the vice presidential debate, Mr. Pence came across thoughtful and empathetic, even when discussing such hot-button issues as abortion.
He spoke feelingly of the difficult decision many women face, but talked just as eloquently of the benefits of adoption and the moral imperative to protect the disabled, elderly and the unborn. He responded from the heart. Now it’s Mr. Trump’s turn to connect, to explain why he is fighting for ordinary Americans and how he can use a lifetime of private-sector experience to get things done in Washington.
Mrs. Clinton has a clear advantage, and Mr. Trump has little time left to change the dynamics of the race. She has controlled the message, raising real doubts about his temperament and readiness to be president. He needs to fight back and drive home, succinctly and repeatedly, why she represents the status quo politically and can’t be trusted personally. It is a huge task, but it’s clear that if Mr. Trump wants to win in November, he will need to improve his game on the debate stage.