Democrat Tim Kaine aggressively challenged Republican Mike Pence over a long list of Donald Trump’s controversial positions and statements in the only vice presidential debate of the US election campaign.
Mr Kaine’s attack drew a vigorous defence of presidential candidate Mr Trump’s tax history. But Mr Pence sidestepped criticism of the brash billionaire’s demeaning comments about women, public doubting of Barack Obama’s citizenship and broader questions about temperament.
Indiana governor Mr Pence and Virginia senator Mr Kaine, who have received little attention in a race focused on Mr Trump and Democrat rival Hillary Clinton, faced off for 90 minutes in the showdown at Virginia’s Longwood University.
With the close White House race perhaps starting to tip in Mrs Clinton’s favour, Mr Pence outlined a detailed conservative agenda on tax policy, entitlements and immigration.
He was markedly more prepared and more detailed in his answers than Mr Trump was in last week’s first presidential debate and also more consistent in painting the Democratic ticket as career politicians unwilling to shake up Washington.
“Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine want more of the same,” Mr Pence said. He also repeatedly accused the Democrats of running an “insult-driven” campaign – an ironic attack line given that Mr Trump has levelled repeated insults against Mrs Clinton and his former rivals in the Republican primaries.
There was a striking difference in the two men’s manner – Mr Kaine, Mrs Clinton’s usually easy-going number two, went on the attack from the start, repeatedly interrupting and challenging Mr Pence. Mr Pence, an equally genial politician, was unflappable.
Mr Kaine pressured Mr Pence to answer for some of his running mate’s provocative statements, using Mr Trump’s own words such as dismissing some women as pigs or slobs. He also challenged Mr Pence on Mr Trump’s decision to break with decades of campaign tradition by not releasing his tax returns.
“Donald Trump must give the American public his tax returns to show he’s prepared to be president, and he’s breaking his promise,” Mr Kaine said.
Asked about reports that Mr Trump might not have paid any federal taxes for years, Mr Pence said his running mate “used the tax code just the way it’s supposed to be used, and he did it brilliantly”.
Records obtained by The New York Times showed Mr Trump suffered more than 900 million dollars (£708m) in losses in 1995 that could have allowed him to avoid paying federal income taxes for as many as 18 years.
Mr Kaine, too, defended his running mate’s weaknesses, chiefly the public’s questions about her honesty and trustworthiness. He said that while Mr Trump was “selfish”, Mrs Clinton had devoted her career to helping children and families.
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) October 5, 2016
Social issues were a bigger part of the conversation than in the first presidential showdown, reflecting both candidates’ religious faith.
Mr Kaine, a Catholic who personally opposes abortion but has consistently voted in favour of abortion rights, said of the Republican nominee: “Why doesn’t Donald Trump trust women to make this choice for themselves?”
He also pointed to Mr Trump’s assertion that women should face some kind of “punishment” for abortion, a comment on which Mr Trump later backtracked.
Mr Pence stressed his opposition to abortion and said he was “proud to be standing with Donald Trump” on the issue.
On national security, Mr Kaine revived Mr Trump’s frequently flattering comments about Russian president Vladimir Putin.
“He loves dictators,” Mr Kaine said. “He’s got like a personal Mount Rushmore: Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.”
Mr Pence tried to flip the tables by accusing Mr Kaine’s running mate of stoking Russia’s belligerence.
“The weak and feckless foreign policy of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has awaked an aggression in Russia that first appeared in Russia a few years ago,” Mr Pence said.
“All the while, all we do is fold our arms and say we’re not having talks any more.”
On criminal justice, Mr Kaine argued that Mr Trump’s embrace of “stop and frisk” style policing was a mistake. Mr Pence argued that Mrs Clinton has used police shootings to argue that there is “implicit bias” in police forces and he said the Democrats should “stop seizing on these moments of tragedy”.
Mr Kaine quickly shot back: “I can’t believe you are defending the position that there’s no bias.”
Tuesday’s contest was the only time Mr Kaine and Mr Pence will face off in this election, while Mr Trump and Mrs Clinton tangle in three contests.
Mrs Clinton was widely viewed as the winner of her opening debate with Mr Trump, rattling the property mogul with jabs about his business record and demeaning statements about women, and responding to his attacks with calm rejoinders.
New public opinion polls have showed her improving her standing in nearly all battleground states.
At least some of Mrs Clinton’s bounce is probably attributable to Mr Trump’s conduct coming out of the debate. He redoubled his criticism of a beauty queen and her weight, one of the topics Mrs Clinton raised in the debate, and went on a pre-dawn Twitter tirade trying to disparage the former Miss Universe.
While Mr Trump has five weeks until election day to regain his footing, early voting is already under way in some states.