Senator Tim Kaine, the Democratic running mate, drilled down on his opponent, Mike Pence, at the vice presidential debate, demanding that he defend the most controversial parts of Donald Trump’s record, from praising Vladimir Putin to calling himself “smart” for skipping taxes.
Repeatedly colliding at their 90-minute debate in Virginia, the two men belied their reputations as mild-mannered, even pallid public servants. Mr Pence, Governor of Indiana, variously wore a pained face as the top of his ticket was picked apart by Mr Kaine or sought instead to laugh off the assorted charges as “nonsense”, “untrue” or “completely false”.
The men were repeatedly admonished by the moderator, Elaine Quijano of CBS News, to stop talking over one another, lest viewers lost the thread of their squabbling entirely.
“I cannot believe that Governor would defend the insult-driven campaign that Donald Trump has run,” Mr Kaine declared, cataloguing the serial demeaning statements the Republican nominee has made over time whether about Mexican immigrants, women, a judge he called unfit because of his Mexican heritage, a former Miss Universe and even Senator John Mccain, a Vietnam War prisoner of war.
“You can't have somebody at the top who demeans every group he talks about,” the US Senator from Virginia asserted, adding tartly: “Donald Trump can’t start a Twitter war with Miss Universe without shooting himself in the foot”.
Mr Kaine said that six times in the course of the debate he had asked Mr Pence to stand up of this own ticket and six times he had demurred. Yet the Governor was at the same time asking “everybody to vote for somone that he cannot defend,” Mr Kaine said.
The alleged missteps and misdemeanors of Mr Trump was the theme that seeped into the fabric of the entire debate, even though the topics under discussion were varied, ranging all the way from terrorism and foreign policy to immigration, social security, faith and abortion.
Mr Kaine appeared content to spend the night highlighting all the controversies that Mr Trump has created for himself, even at the cost arguably of losing the Tuesday night debate. But the strategy was clear: hammer home to viewers why they should be afraid of a Trump presidency.
That included highlighting Mr Trump’s continuing failure to release 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,” Kaine said.
Early on, Mr Kaine said that for he and his wife the notion of Mr Trump as commander in chief, “scares us his death”, as their son is deployed with the US marines. Later, he accused Mr Trump of endangering the world with loose talk about giving more countries nuclear weapons - a charge that was “even beneath you and Hillary Clinton, a low blow”, Mr Pence shot back.
“Donald Trump believes that the world will be safer if more countries have nuclear weapons,” Mr Kaine said bluntly, referring to his past public musings about letting Japan and Saudi Arabia to build own nuclear arsenals.
The failure of Mr Pence substantively to defend the top of his own ticket point by point was awkward but possibly also deliberate. The Governor, whose style was clipped and desiccated but showed a composure perhaps learned in a past career as a radio broadcaster, must have known that going down each of those Trump-dug rabbit holes was a no-win proposition.
But if the pundits and instant polls give the night initially to Mr Pence - his style was inarguably smoother and the repeated interruptions from Mr Kaine may have irritated some viewers - the days ahead may be less kind to him when fact-checkers examine his repeated denials of the things that his opponent said Mr Trump has said on the campaign trail.
Heralding what she said had been Mr Pence's strong performance, the Trump campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, said that her campaign's foes had been served notice. "You keep leaving us for dead. You keep thinking we're going to bleed out. And here we come. And tonight Governor Pence helped us in that regard quite a bit."
Mr Pence did effectively use the night to sharpen his ticket’s attacks on Ms Clinton. He singled out a misstep by her at a fundraiser when she put half of Mr Trump’s supporters in a “basket of deplorable”. Mr Trump’s alleged insults were “small potatoes” by comparison, he argued.
The Governor also succeeded to raise issues that Mr Trump had omitted to at the first presidential debate nearly ten days ago, including the workings of the Clinton Foundation and the allegation that its taking money from foreign governments created a conflict of interest for Ms Clinton when she was serving as Secretary of State.
Mr Kaine aggressively posited that Mr Pence and Mr Trump had each voiced admiration for President Putin of Russia. “Governor Pence said, inarguably, Vladimir Putin is a better leader than President Obama. Vladimir Putin’s run his economy into the ground,” Mr Kaine insisted. “If you don’t know the difference between dictatorship and leadership, you’ve got to go back to a fifth grade civics course.”
But Mr Pence fought back arguing that Ms Clinton and President Barack Obama had sought an ill-fated “reset with Russia”, and it was under Mr Obama's watch that Russia invaded Ukraine and Crimea. More broadly he spoke witheringly of “the weak and feckless foreign policy” of the Obama-Clinton partnership. It was that weakness that had re-awakened Russian aggression on the world map, he asserted.
The debate, for all its irascibility, nonetheless was occasionally substantive, particularly in the closing moments when Mr Pence staunchly defended his record of opposing abortion. He contrasted his pro-life stance with Ms Clinto’s pro-choice position and appeared to acknowledge Mr Trump had erred when he said in one television interview that women who have abortions should face punishment.
“He is not a polished politicians like you and Hillary Clinton,” Mr Pence said of that statement.
But that was about as close as he was going to come to an apology for the actions of the man he has lashed himself to, for better or worse.Reuse content