Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine repeatedly challenged Mike Pence during Tuesday’s vice presidential debate, attempting to tie the Indiana governor to some of Donald Trump’s most controversial statements about women, immigrants and foreign policy. Trump’s running mate maintained a folksy, soft-spoken demeanor, even as he mounted an uneven defense of the New York billionaire.
Rather than commenting on some of the GOP candidate’s most inflammatory comments, Pence attempted to turn the attacks back on Kaine’s running mate, Hillary Clinton, repeatedly questioning her trustworthiness and raising questions about her use of a private email server and her family’s foundation.
The two men engaged in a surprisingly contentious back-and-forth on the debate stage at Longwood University, a 90-minute exchange that introduced two little-known politicians to the national stage.
Here are the top takeaways from Tuesday’s vice presidential debate:
WHO’S ON STAGE?
Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump.
Most of the debate was dominated by people not on the stage: the presidential candidates. Rather than go after each other, the two men immediately took aim at the tops of their tickets.
In his first response, Kaine took aim at Trump, saying the idea of the Republican nominee as commander in chief “scares” his family “to death.”
Pence shot back, saying Americans were right to question Clinton’s trustworthiness, citing her use of a private email system while serving as secretary of state. “That’s because they’re paying attention,” he said.
Neither Pence nor Kaine was pressed to defend any issues in their own records, including the policy differences they have with their running mates.
PENCE THE IGNORER
Kaine repeatedly tried to hold Pence accountable for Trump’s most explosive statements, opening the debate by calling him “Donald Trump’s apprentice.”
Pence did defend Trump over a New York Times report that Trump may have avoided paying taxes for nearly two decades. Trump, said Pence, used the tax code “brilliantly” during a “tough time.”
But for most of the debate, Pence simply turned the attacks back on Clinton, leaving hanging questions about Trump’s criticisms of a federal judge, women and immigrants. Rather than defend Trump’s foreign policy positions, he criticized Clinton’s “weak and feckless leadership.”
At one point, Pence said he is “happy to defend” Trump, but then moved on to a discussion about Russia without addressing numerous issues raised by Kaine.
Kaine kept a tally of Pence’s dodges, announcing more than an hour into the debate that Pence had avoided defending Trump six times.
TRUMP’S SOFTER SIDE
Pence tried to turn the tables on the Democratic ticket by presenting Kaine and Clinton as offering an “avalanche of insults” and casting Trump in the model of a traditional GOP candidate.
After Kaine recounted a series of controversial statements Trump has made about President Barack Obama, Mexican immigrants, women and other groups, Pence wondered incredulously, “Ours is an insult-driven campaign?”
Pence offered softer rhetoric when describing the controversial policies at the core of Trump’s campaign — his promises to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and an early vow to bar foreign Muslims from entering the U.S. He said Trump is eager to work across the aisle to toughen border security and support community policing.
“He’s not a polished politician like you and Hillary Clinton,” he said when Kaine raised Trump’s statement that women should be punished for having abortions.
Even as Pence was defending Trump, however, the businessman was tweeting — and retweeting — insults. “Kaine looks like an evil crook out of the Batman movies,” read one tweet that Trump re-posted to his account.
FEISTY VS. FOLKSY
The two vice presidential candidates took different approaches to the debate, with Kaine hectoring Pence on nearly every response. The Republican National Committee, eager to paint Clinton’s typically easygoing number two as unlikable, kept a tally of over 70 interruptions.
Pence took a different tack. Between attacks, he sprinkled personal stories and promises to work across the aisle— even offering damning praise for Clinton and Kaine.
“Hillary Clinton and Senator Kaine — God bless you for it, career public servants, that’s great — Donald Trump is a businessman, not a career politician,” he said.
Kaine came packing — zingers, that is. He lobbed so many prepared soundbites that Pence called out his “predone lines.”
“Did you work on that one a long time? Because that had a lot of creative lines in it,” Pence said at one point.
Lerer reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Julie Bykowicz contributed from Washington.
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