Mike Pence won. It wasn't especially close in my book. A few thoughts:
(1) Kaine was peevish and annoying with his incessant interruptions, to which Pence responded calmly -- occasionally evincing forcefulness, at other times appearing amused. Donald Trump's running mate also made a point of highlighting Kaine's painfully rehearsed lines, mocking them gently -- and not so gently -- each time. On style, this was a clock-cleaning.
(2) On policy substance, Pence was fluid and prepared. Kaine was also familiar with his briefing book. It appeared as though Kaine was instructed to raise anti-Trump attack lines and talking points at every single opportunity. If that was his goal, mission accomplished. Others have made these observations, but I'll amplify them: Kaine did not seem interested in winning this debate. He seemed interested in emptying his rhetorical clip of opposition research on the man at the top of his counterpart's ticket. And Pence declined, repeatedly, to answer specific charges and challenges about things Trump has done and said. He made a choice not to defend the indefensible. These dynamics were 'sore-thumb' obvious. A fair question some have asked: Was Pence so polished, informed, relaxed and smooth that he only accentuated the reality that Trump is none of those things?
(3) While Kaine was constantly on offense against Trump, occasionally defending Mrs. Clinton with brief talking points, Pence picked his spots. He prosecuted a tough case against the Clinton Foundation's foreign donations. He raised her email scandal on multiple occasions, including in the context of cyber security, where Trump whiffed last week. And over and over again, he would not let Kaine get away with the ridiculous claim that the Iran deal ended that anti-American regime's nuclear program. It does nothing of the sort, and effectively guarantees that Iran will be a threshold nuclear state when the agreement's restrictions automatically expire. Even President Obama has more or less admitted as much. Kaine kept advancing a mischaracterization, and Pence kept calling him on it. The Indiana Governor's decision to go criticize Hillary Clinton's extreme views on abortion was also a great move, especially since he underscored Kaine's politically-motivated reversals on those questions, causing the Virginia Senator to squirm in his seat.
(4) The moderator was pilloried by viewers online throughout the evening, and I agree that she seemed inclined to cut Pence off as he was getting into the meat of Clinton's various scandals. But in her defense, she repeatedly called Kaine out for interrupting and asked pointed, substantive questions of both candidates, including two queries pertaining to the national debt and entitlements. Maybe I'm an outlier here, but I thought she was fine overall, even if she didn't pick her "enforcement" spots perfectly.
(5) I'm not sure any of this matters. This election is the Trump and Clinton show, and while Pence was effective at prosecuting a tough case against the Democratic nominee and (sometimes painfully) side-stepping challenges about Trump's long rap sheet of statements, Kaine remained relentlessly on-message as an attack dog. That may have frustrated and turned off many viewers, but negativity works. If Donald Trump wants to reverse the self-inflicted negative momentum he's experiencing in this race, he's going to have to do so himself on Sunday. Pence passed this test with flying colors, but he's not the man in the spotlight. The Hoosier State Republican did everything he could to help his ticket, and he may have created a favorable and stabilizing impression, but the undercard debate cannot and will not be decisive. I'll leave you with this. Decisive:
Who won tonight's vice-presidential debate?— Frank Luntz (@FrankLuntz) October 5, 2016
• 22 say Mike Pence
• 4 say Tim Kaine#VPDebate
And closer, but a win:
CNN poll debate watchers— Sam Stein (@samsteinhp) October 5, 2016