Pence pro­vides tem­plate for Trump’s make-or-break de­bate

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Mercedes Sch­lapp is a Fox News con­trib­u­tor, co-founder of Cove Strate­gies and for­mer White House di­rec­tor of spe­cialty me­dia un­der Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush.

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.

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