The big unasked question on the debate stage Sunday night was: "Where's Mike Pence?"
Since the video of Donald Trump admitting to sexual assault came out on Friday and Republicans ran for the hills, Pence had gone to ground. He bailed on filling in for Trump at the fall picnic of Speaker Paul Ryan (who was "sickened" by the revelations). Pence emerged only to go to church. There was talk of a President Pence. No one would have been surprised if Pence had asked to get off the ticket.
But Pence came home. Minutes after Trump stopped stalking Hillary Clinton on stage and lowered his fists, Pence tweeted: "Congrats to my running mate on a big debate win! Proud to stand with you as we."
Trump has little chance to "make America great again" without Pence by his side. Without Pence, the center of Trump's coalition would not hold. But Trump did nothing to lure Pence back into the fold. To the contrary, he said during the debate that the two hadn't even been in touch.
Yet there was Pence on TV early Monday morning in full admiration mode, as if something had changed since he was "offended" on Friday. The Indiana governor listed his usual warnings about what a disaster Clinton would be, along with a big Indiana hug: Pence compared the change Trump would bring to the White House to that of John Kennedy. Only Jesus could be more forgiving.
However, the damage was done. Pence disappeared just when Republicans had started to count on him to be the adult who will not leave Trump alone in the White House.
Trump needed him more than ever, but deep-sixed Pence without a flicker of concern when moderator Martha Raddatz read Pence's answer on Russia's role in Syria — at odds with Trump's answer on the same subject. Given a choice between Pence or Putin, Trump chose Putin. Of Pence, Trump said curtly: "He and I haven't spoken, and I disagree."
"Haven't spoken" should not have been an option for Trump, given what he was putting Pence through. In an interview Monday, Pence said he talked to his mother over the weekend. (I defy you to imagine these two devout Midwesterners talking around the topic of the lewd tape that has been playing in a near continuous loop since Friday.) He then pleaded for grace and redemption for the man he was "proud" to stand by.
Of course, Trump's way of life means never having to say you're sorry. But he should be more careful to keep Pence around. Trump apparently forgets that Pence has a rosy future in the GOP to protect — a future at risk already, as Nebraska's governor just canceled a fundraiser with him for Tuesday.
From the outset, he's treated Pence — a church-going, Bible-reading, long-married Hoosier — as a second, or third, banana. Boring at best. Trump let it be known that he almost didn't choose Pence. He ignored Pence like a potted palm on stage while he rambled on for 30 minutes before introducing him.
Pence has had a weekend of hearing how much better he is than the top of the ticket, how happy many Republicans would be if Trump would resign and the party meeting Monday night could treat Trump as dead and proceed to name Pence the nominee. Given the late hour, that's an unlikely scenario.
Still, all that wishful thinking could go to Pence's head. His return to the fold might not be permanent if Trump doesn't recognize how much the party — and Trump — need Pence on board. As Pence goes so goes Middle America.
When Trump loses, Pence's staff will leak stories about what a personal Gethsemane the video was for their boss, how close he came to leaving, how only his sense of duty to God and party kept him on board.
Will that be enough? Today Pence looks like one more Republican caught in an unexpected calculus, trying to split the difference between his conscience and his career. Ryan chose one path, saying midday that he would no longer defend Trump. Pence chose another. In 2020, we will see which path the party rewards.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.