HARRISONBURG, Va. (AP) — Republican Mike Pence emerged from the vice presidential debate Wednesday an energized No. 2 set on using his Midwestern reserve to win over small-town and rural conservatives in battleground states.
But the praise Pence is receiving after Tuesday's debate against Democrat Tim Kaine is also an awkward reminder of Trump's failings at his own top-of-the-ticket showdown against Hillary Clinton. That has some Republicans wishing for a ticket flip — with Pence the one running for president — and looking ahead to Pence's prospects in 2020.
"Some people say they wish the ticket were reversed. I can see that," said Jim Wood, a retired Army officer and Iraq War veteran from nearby Waynesboro, Virginia. "People got to see that last night. For all of Trump's anger, this guy plays it cool."
The understated Pence kept calm during the debate, offering only an indignant "Oh, come on" at Kaine's assertion that Trump's "personal Mount Rushmore" includes the faces of dictators including Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The more a wound-up Kaine challenged him to defend Trump's statements and policies, the calmer Pence seemed to get. And as the political intelligentsia debated which man won, Pence offered a gracious deflection.
"People are saying that I won the debate," he said Wednesday in Harrisonburg, Virginia. "I can tell you from where I sat, Donald Trump's vision to make America great won the debate."
Trump concurred that Pence's performance was about Trump.
"Mike Pence did an incredible job and I'm getting a lot of credit because that's really my first so-called choice, that was my first hire, as we would say in Las Vegas," the real estate mogul told supporters at a rally Wednesday in Henderson, Nevada. "He was meant to be doing what he's doing and we are very, very proud of Gov. Mike Pence."
But in Harrisonburg, Virginia, the audience cheered — for Pence — when the Indiana governor mentioned his showdown Tuesday night against Kaine.
Still, Pence strayed not an inch from his mission to champion Trump, even when some see presidential material in the Indiana governor.
A Pence-for-president campaign four years hence is not even a whisper on Pence's lips, senior Pence adviser Nick Ayers said. After all, that assumes Trump loses the election on Nov. 8.
"There's been zero consideration from the moment he took that phone call from Donald Trump to anything beyond this election," Ayers said.
Pence's performance Tuesday night preserved some distance between him and the man at the top of the GOP's 2016 ticket. Pence did not defend Trump's oft-criticized remarks about Mexican immigrants, Sen. John McCain and women. Clinton spokeswoman Karen Finney suggested Pence was acting out of concern for his own future.
"Was he there to do his job or was he thinking about 2020?" Finney asked.
Ayers dismissed the swipe, saying Pence dispatched Kaine's jabs quickly then pivoted to put Clinton's team on defense.
Still, Pence is impressing conservative audiences, maintaining and expanding a network of key conservative leaders and donors and receiving increased media attention, all in the service of Trump. For instance, Pence helped raise money with Republican establishment donors to boost Trump's stepped-up battleground advertising. Pence also was instrumental in securing endorsements of Trump by Christian conservative James Dobson to Trump and onetime bitter rival, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Others are watching his movements with the future in mind.
Gwen Ecklund, Republican chairwoman in Crawford County, Iowa, said Republicans in this conservative western Iowa county have told her they'd like to see Pence at the top of the ticket. "I've heard the same top-of-the-ticket comments," Ecklund said. "In general, I hear people will support Trump, but wish the ticket was reversed."
At the debate, Pence demonstrated familiarity with international affairs and national security, even going so far as to suggest a somewhat stronger U.S. position with respect to Russia's support for the Assad regime in the five-year-old civil war that has displaced and killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians.
"The United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike military targets of the Assad regime to prevent them from this humanitarian crisis that is taking place.
Pence's work for Trump and any residual benefit to himself are not mutually exclusive. But, it requires a soft touch, considering Trump's notoriously sensitive ego, said Bonnie Barlow, a Newmarket, Virginia, supporter who attended the rally.
"I love him, more after the debate. He was such a gentleman," Barlow said. "But we can't let talk of him overshadow Trump. That would be bad."
"Plus, he'll get his turn," she said.