The Indiana governor largely batted away Hillary Clinton running mate Tim Kaine's recitations of Trump's most incendiary comments, dismissing Kaine's pressure as "pre-done lines" from an "insult-driven campaign."
He sidestepped Trump's most politically toxic remarks -- on Muslims, Mexicans, a disabled journalist and more -- and showed how a more conventional Republican could attack Clinton.
It had some Republicans crowing about Pence's chances in 2020 -- and others saying they wish he could be promoted to the top of the ticket in 2016.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican who has refused to endorse Trump, told CNN's Wolf Blitzer Wednesday he would vote for Pence for president "in a heartbeat."
"If I'm Donald Trump, I'm taking lessons now from how Pence performed and the rave reviews he got and I'm going to mirror that," Kinzinger said, in Trump's second bout with Clinton, Sunday night in St. Louis.
A half-dozen Republican establishment leaders -- including current and former elected officials and high-level operatives who have publicly supported Trump -- heaped praise on Pence when CNN's Jamie Gangel asked for their take on his performance.
Several sources sent the same response: "Pence 2016!"
"It was as if you suddenly remembered, 'Oh right, this is what it feels like when you have a candidate who knows how to debate, knows the issues and sounds like a Republican,'" one said.
Another called Pence the most valuable player of the 2016 campaign.
Pence spent most of his time attacking the records of Clinton and President Barack Obama -- themes that he could revisit in a potential 2020 run if Clinton defeats Trump to win the White House.
Even some conservatives were talking after the debate about Pence and 2020.
Erick Erickson, the blogger and anti-Trump movement leader, tweeted: "Pence has convinced me conservatives should not write him off for 2020 just by being Trump's VP nominee. He was solid."
Bill Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard who spent months recruiting an anti-Trump third party conservative candidate, tweeted congratulations to Pence for "throwing (Trump) under the bus last night."
Pence dismissed any notions he had overshadowed Trump in an interview with talk radio host Rush Limbaugh Wednesday afternoon.
"Donald Trump called me right after the debate to congratulate me and we actually talked a couple times last night," Pence said. "I'm very encouraged that some people think I won, but really I'm just telling you ... from where I sat, Donald Trump won. He really did."
"It was Donald Trump's vision to make America great again. It was Donald Trump's vision to end illegal immigration once and for all," Pence said.
Trump took credit for Pence's performance, too, at an event in Henderson, Nevada, on Wednesday.
"Mike Pence did an incredible job and I'm getting a lot of credit because this was my so-called first choice, that was my first hire as we would say," Trump said during a rally.
Earlier on Wednesday, Trump said during a campaign stop at a Christian private school that he was "very proud" of Pence's performance.
"He won, he won on the issues, somebody said he won on style -- the style doesn't matter -- the issues, the policy matters. He's getting tremendous reviews from me and everybody," Trump said.
Trump's praise follows reports that Trump was upset about Pence repeatedly dodging opportunities to defend him during the debate.
"The media is saying Pence won, but didn't really defend Trump. That isn't sitting well with the boss," a senior Trump campaign aide told CNN's John King.
Clinton's campaign pushed the theme that Pence's performance was stylistically on-point but substantively disconnected from Trump's candidacy hard after the debate Tuesday and early Wednesday.
"The vice president's job is to go in and defend the top of the ticket. Mike Pence looked more like he was looking at 2020 than 2016," Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta said Wednesday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."
Podesta pointed to Pence adopting different positions than Trump on Russia and saying the US military should be prepared to strike the Syrian government.
"He didn't sound at all like what Donald Trump has been saying on the campaign trail. He made a whole new policy up on Syria which embraced Hillary Clinton's approach to what's been going on in Syria," Podesta said.
Karen Finney, a Kaine aide, made a similar case to CNN's Chris Cuomo on "New Day."
"I think the question was always going to be, how far would Mike Pence go to defend Donald Trump, or would he be more concerned about his own 2020 aspirations?" Finney said. "And I think the answer to that is pretty clear after last night. He literally -- he scoffed and he laughed and he tried to shake his head. But he did not defend Donald Trump."