As Republican vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence swung through Phoenix on Tuesday, the fresh scum that had boiled to the top of the current news cycle included (but was not limited to) his running mate Donald Trump's ongoing feud with a Pakistani American couple whose son was killed while serving in Iraq; Trump's failure to endorse incumbent Sen. John McCain and House Speaker Paul Ryan in their upcoming primary elections; and the Trump family's recent disconcerting remarks about sexual harassment in the workplace.
You wouldn't have known it if you were inside the downtown Phoenix Convention Center, where Pence was painting an image of Donald Trump that wouldn't look out of place on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel — albeit one that was totally contrary to everything the GOP nominee has displayed during the 13 months of his political campaign.
Pence described Trump as an unwavering supporter of good Christian principles, as a thoughtful and patient man who engages in long and deep conversations about issues of immense political importance, and perhaps most unfathomably, as a dogged proponent of diversity and a man committed to fighting for the working class.
"He's always stopping to talk to taxicab drivers and elevator operators … and he's more likely to go to the loading dock than the lobby [of a hotel]," Pence imparted about his travels with Trump, echoing a recent remark made by Fox News host Sean Hannity, that Trump is a "blue-collar billionaire."
Pence went on to characterize Trump as a deeply passionate supporter of school choice, states' rights, Medicaid reform, and as the only person able to "restore law and order to the streets of cities and towns all across America."
Even during the Q&A portion of the town hall event, Pence managed to sidestep Trump's repeated self-inflicted political wounds. As each questioner began speaking into the microphone, the room fell eerily silent, as if everyone was waiting for somebody to acknowledge the elephant in the room or otherwise disrupt the proceedings.
With the exception of one protester chanting "Trump's a racist, Trump's a racist," who was quickly escorted out of the building while the audience broke out into a collective "boo," the night went off without a hitch.
Video of protester being escorted out of Pence town hall. pic.twitter.com/CfEO2bLVew— Matthew Nussbaum (@MatthewNussbaum) August 3, 2016
Keenly aware that people don't go to Trump campaign events to hear policy details, Pence stuck to platitudes. Like the ticket topper, he made sweeping statements about restoring border security and law and order, bolstering the military to defeat ISIS, creating jobs, and filling the Supreme Court with judges who will defend Second Amendment rights and "the sanctity of life."
He tore into President Barack Obama and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton – prompting a few rousing rounds of "Lock her up! Lock her up!" – and portrayed the 2016 election as a choice between the status quo (i.e., Armageddon) and change (i.e., Trumptopia).
All in all, for a politician tasked with wooing hardcore conservatives and party elites while doing damage control for a loose cannon of a running mate, Pence did a very good job.
The whole night still managed to be weird, though — particularly when it came to the over-the-top security precautions.
Vendors selling plastic bottles of water and soda were required to confiscate the caps so no one could throw them at Pence – though for unexplained reasons, the peanuts and Skittles for sale weren't considered a threat – and there appeared to be more security and campaign personnel hovering around the small group of reporters and photographers confined to the media pen than in the rest of the venue.
Before the rally began, reporters were forbidden from leaving the media area to speak with audience members. "That's why you guys are fenced in, so we don't have people wandering around talking to people," a campaign staffer explained cheerfully.
In response to complaints, the media quarantine was lifted, for precisely 20 minutes.
Thus unfettered, we were able to introduce ourselves to Nicole DeLuca and Steve Bohus, two Trump supporters who have been with their candidate from the very beginning. Neither knew much about Pence — be it his time as governor of Indiana or his far-right political views — but both agreed that his experience and even-keeled temperament make him a good match on a ticket whose other half lacks both attributes.
Bohus allowed that Trump himself "needs to become more professional. He did it for all of a day, but he's got to get more people in his court."
Agreed DeLuca: "Yeah, negative campaigning won't do him any good. Him not following the political correctness is fine, but he needs to do it with a little more tact, a little more class and finesse."
That said, the two didn't seem to be holding their breath for their candidate to make the long-promised presidential pivot anytime soon.
Other attendees expressed similar opinions about Trump-Pence, albeit with a little more optimism about the November election.
"I think [Pence] was a great choice, a safe choice," said Cynthia Love, a longtime Trump supporter who traveled to Cleveland for last month's Republican National Convention. "They might not really be friends, but they balance each other out," she added.
Love, by the way, won our utterly unofficial costume contest, with her bedazzled red, white, and blue hat, fanny pack, and sneakers.
Love's friend Lori Urban, also decked out in Trump regalia, agreed with the assessment: "I'm not really up on Mike Pence, but I think it's good [Trump] has someone running with governing experience. It really helps balance out the ticket."
Another Trump supporter, Gene Klund, was taken aback when asked why he was voting for the billionaire. "We've got a country to save!" he blurted. "If we don't get out and support our nation and our causes, we're going to lose our country!"
Others framed their reasons in a negative fashion, portraying Trump as the anti-Clinton. ("There's evidence Bill Clinton has AIDS," one woman whispered.)
"I've been doing research into The Clinton Chronicles, it's a lot more scary than I originally thought," Diane Neiman, another Trump supporter, said, referring to a 1994 film documentary that alleges the Clintons committed multiple crimes, including murder.
"I had a son in the Marines, so I was disappointed," Neiman admitted when asked what she thinks about Khizr Khan's anti-Trump speech at the Democratic National Convention. "But I've heard Mr. Khan is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. I got an e-mail from a gal who was a former jihadist saying she knew for a fact that Mr. Khan was a member." (While there's no evidence for this assertion, a quick Google search reveals Neiman is far from alone in believing it.)
As New Times has reported in the past, each successive Trump campaign event in Phoenix has been a vastly different experience from the last. In that light, Pence's visit fits the pattern.
Did he say anything to win over voters who may still be on the fence about Trump? Hard to say.
Did attendees learn anything new about their VP pick? Also hard to say. One group of women described Pence as "a typical politician" (but, you know, not in a bad way).
What is clear is that aside from baiting the audience with references to Clinton's and Obama's destructive political agenda, Pence drew the evening's heartiest applause when he responded to a question about the "real" Mike Pence.
Slowly pacing around the stage, Pence promised, "I'm going to stand next to Donald Trump and advance his agenda to make America great—"
He barely got out the word "again" before the audience erupted with cheers.
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