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Is Mike Pence positioning himself for 2020?

During the vice-presidential debate, Governor Pence stayed focused on articulating conservative values and criticizing Hillary Clinton, while rarely mentioning his running mate's name.

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    Vice presidential nominees Governor Mike Pence (l.) and Senator Tim Kaine leave the stage together after their debate at Longwood University in Farmville, Va., Oct. 4, 2016.
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Mike Pence may be on the Trump-Pence 2016 ticket today, but if Tuesday night's vice presidential debate was any indication, the real ticket he's after is Pence 2020.

Gov. Pence had, perhaps, the most difficult and unenviable task in the debate: defending Donald Trump, his name-calling, and his extreme proposals. In this, the Indiana governor's strategy was nearly flawless. While Democratic nominee Tim Kaine pressed him to defend Mr. Trump, Pence remained unflappable, smoothly steering a disciplined narrative that focused less on defending Trump and more on attacking Hillary Clinton.

The performance led many observers to proclaim Pence the winner – and a solid contender for the 2020 Republican presidential nomination.

"I thought Pence threaded the needle last night," says David Ryden, a professor of political science at Hope College in Michigan. "He had as tough a job as I can imagine going into the debate, defending someone who on a regular basis has been and said things that are indefensible, and to do it in a way that doesn't hurt the campaign, and perhaps more importantly for Pence, doesn't do permanent damage to his reputation as a serious and honorable conservative."

"He managed to pull it off," he says. "I give him high marks."

Not only that, Pence managed to make a two-pronged case for himself for 2020, adds Seth Masket, a professor of political science at the University of Denver.

"First, he effectively distanced himself from Trump without rebuking him. That is, he basically said Trump is a good man and denied any evidence to the contrary. Second, Pence sounded traditional conservative stances on abortion and other social issues, giving Christian conservatives the sort of cultural appeals that have been lacking from Trump," explains Professor Masket.

In doing so, Pence may have redeemed himself for some conservatives, like prominent conservative blogger Erick Erickson.

Recommended: 'Stop and frisk': 7 questions about New York's controversial policing tactic

How did Pence defend the indefensible? He didn't. "Instead, he dodged, deflected, and demurred — deciding, it seemed, that all of the fires that Mr. Trump has set in the past year could not be doused in a single night," reported The New York Times.

It was a master class in debate strategy. Rule No. 1: Change the subject.

When Senator Kaine pressed Pence on Trump's unwillingness to release his taxes, Pence talked instead about how low taxes are good for economic growth.

When Kaine challenged Pence to defend a long list of insults Trump made about Mexicans, women, and senator and veteran John McCain, Pence pivoted instead to Mrs. Clinton and her "basket of deplorables" comment.

When Kaine tried to pin Pence with Trump's praise for leaders like Vladimir Putin and Saddam Hussein, the Indiana governor paused, smiled, and said only, “Did you work on that one a long time? Because that had a lot of really creative lines in it.”

"Defending Trump's record at the debate would have been futile," says Jonathan Rothermel, professor of political science at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Penn. "Instead, he sent a reassuring message to establishment Republicans who are not quite sold on Trump by attacking Clinton's record and focusing on more substantive issues."

Rule No. 2: Deny.

Pence took a page out of Trump's playbook, too, and simply denied Trump said or stood for certain things.

When Kaine pressed Pence on Trump's comments on stop-and-frisk, Pence suggested the billionaire candidate supported criminal justice reform, as Pence has in Indiana and in Washington. Trump, in fact has called for a return to so-called stop-and-frisk policing.

When Kaine asked Pence to explain Trump's claims that Vladimir Putin is a better leader than President Obama, Pence looked offended and called the comment "absolutely inaccurate." Trump, in fact, frequently praises President Putin, and has said he is a "stronger" leader than Mr. Obama.

"The only defense for outrageous statements that Trump has made is that he didn’t say them," says Dan Franklin, a professor of political science at Georgia State University. "I think Pence responded in the manner of his campaign: when there are unpleasant truths, deny reality."

And it may have worked, he says. "In reality, this wasn’t a bad defense. It puts the onus back on Kaine to produce a videotape when nobody is paying attention."

Throughout the debate, Pence rarely even mentioned Trump's name, in contrast to Kaine, who frequently referred to Clinton.

Many saw this as proof Pence threw Trump under the bus and is preparing himself for 2020.

But others said Pence was originally chosen as a conservative counterweight to make Trump more palatable, and that's the role he played Tuesday night.

"I would say he did what VP candidates are supposed to do," says Jim Broussard, professor and director of the Center for Political History at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Penn. "What was on his mind was, 'I’ve got to make Trump seem like a normal Republican candidate.' So he talked more about the bedrock Republican policies than he did about Trump’s own pronouncements."

He was appealing to "the traditional conservatives" who have never rallied to Trump's alt-right banner but who remain vehemently anti-Clinton, says Professor Broussard. "Whether accidentally or not, that does help Pence in some possible future run."

Whether his sights were set on 2016 or 2020, the debate – and the entire campaign – benefits Pence, Chris Cillizza noted in The Washington Post back in July.

If Trump wins, he's VP and has a chance to be the GOP nominee in 2024. "If Trump loses, Pence can make the case to the real estate mogul's supporters that he is the natural landing spot for them in 2020. And he can make the case to the GOP establishment that he took on the VP slot for the good of the Republican Party – in hopes of modulating Trump and making him more electable."

Either way, Pence wins.

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