FARMVILLE, Va. — Indiana Gov. Mike Pence sought to stabilize the Republican ticket by accusing his Democratic opponents of the same kind of insults and raw partisanship that have been a hallmark of Donald Trump’s candidacy as he faced off against Sen. Tim Kaine here Tuesday night in a combative and at times grating vice-presidential debate.
With Trump reeling from self-inflicted controversies at a critical juncture in the campaign, Pence projected a steadier temperament than Trump and largely ducked Kaine’s demands to answer for the GOP nominee’s incendiary actions and statements.
But Pence made numerous statements that conflicted with positions taken by Trump. He suggested that Trump would not immediately deport all undocumented immigrants, that he believes military action is warranted to help the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo and that Russia is a dangerous country that the United States must deal with aggressively.
Pence on several instances denied statements that Trump had made in the past, including his assertion that NATO is “obsolete” and his suggestion that Putin is a “stronger” leader than President Obama. Pence repeatedly accused Kaine and Clinton of running “an insult-driven campaign.”
Kaine’s retort: “I’m just saying facts about your running mate.”
The first and only debate between the vice-presidential nominees, a 90-minute forum on the campus of Longwood University in historic Farmville, showcased the two tickets’ vastly divergent plans, from illegal immigration to foreign policy.
Pence injected a number of traditional conservative priorities — abortion, taxes and entitlements — to help reassure Republicans who have misgivings about Trump’s populist agenda, which they see as out of step with GOP orthodoxy.
Kaine and Pence sparred vigorously over Trump’s avowed affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Pence called Putin “a small, bullying leader,” but Kaine repeatedly reminded viewers that Trump has praised the Russian’s leadership style.
“If you mistake leadership for dictatorship,” Kaine said, “you can’t be commander in chief.”
Kaine sought to put Pence on the defensive by bringing up Trump’s attacks on Mexican immigrants, dismissive comments about prisoners of war and years of falsely questioning President Obama’s birthplace.
“If you want to have a society where people are respected or respect laws, you can’t have a person at the top who demeans every group he talks about,” Kaine said.
Kaine repeatedly mentioned Trump’s comments in his 2015 campaign announcement speech that some Mexicans were “rapists” and “criminals.”
“Senator, you whipped out that Mexican thing again,” Pence said.
Kaine countered, “Can you defend it?”
“I couldn’t be more proud to be standing with Donald Trump,” Pence said.
Unlike Trump’s response to Clinton’s aggression on the debate stage last week, Pence refused to be baited into a point-by-point discussion of Trump’s controversies. Rather, Pence drove a pointed contrast between the economic policies and worldviews of Trump and Hillary Clinton, arguing that she and Kaine “want more of the same.”
Responding to Kaine’s comments about the improving economy, Pence said: “Honestly, Senator, you can roll out the numbers and the sunny side, but I’ve got to tell you: People in Scranton know different. People in Fort Wayne know different. People are struggling.”
Pence also excoriated Clinton’s record at the State Department, and he blamed her “weak” and “failed” foreign policy for the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Syria.
“In the wake of Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, where she was the architect of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, we see entire portions of the world, particularly the wider Middle East, literally spinning out of control,” Pence said.
The two men, who sat around a table with moderator Elaine Quijano of CBS News, displayed different strategies and mannerisms. Kaine was aggressive, interrupting and hurling rehearsed insults at Pence, while the Indiana governor was calmer, spoke in homespun language and counterpunched with an edge of disdain for Kaine’s tactics.
A number of times, Kaine delivered the kind of catchy one-liners commonly delivered at debates. “Do you want a ‘You’re hired’ president in Hillary Clinton or do you want a ‘You’re fired’ president in Donald Trump?”
Pence replied: “I appreciated the ‘You’re hired,’ ‘you’re fired,’ thing, senator. You use that a whole lot. And I think your running mate used a lot of pre-done lines.”
Tuesday’s debate came at a critical juncture in the presidential race. With five weeks until Election Day, Trump has been reeling from his rocky performance during the first presidential debate last week in Hempstead, N.Y. In the days that followed, he took a combative posture and at times displayed erratic behavior.
Trump continued a bitter feud with former Miss Universe Alicia Machado for a full week, lashing out at her for gaining weight as a beauty pageant winner two decades ago and urging his supporters to view her “sex tape,” although it was not evident that one existed.
Trump also attacked Clinton in strikingly personal terms at campaign rallies, including imitating her unsteadiness at a public appearance during a bout with pneumonia, and he suggested without evidence that she had been disloyal to her husband, former president Bill Clinton.
Trump has slipped in polls nationally and in nearly every battleground state. In Pennsylvania, a vote-rich state in which Trump is competing aggressively, Clinton has widened her lead against Trump to 10 percentage points, according to a Monmouth University survey released Tuesday.
On stage in Farmville, the No. 2s showed different styles than the candidates at the top of their tickets. Both talked movingly about their personal faith, something Clinton and Trump rarely do, for example.
Tuesday’s forum was marred by so many interruptions that Quijano interjected: “Gentlemen, the people at home cannot understand either one of you when you talk over each other.” Kaine’s impulse to interrupt and rattle Pence was so strong that he interrupted Quijano just as she was trying to force Pence to answer a difficult question about police bias.
Kaine and Pence clashed over criminal justice policies in light of the recent spate of police shootings of black men. Waxing about his uncle, who was a career cop in Chicago, Pence called for unity behind law enforcement and accused Clinton and Kaine of politicizing shootings.
“We ought to stop seizing on these moments of tragedy,” he said. “Enough of this seeking every opportunity to demean law enforcement broadly by making the accusation of implicit violence every time a tragedy occurs.”
Kaine responded by saying, “If you’re afraid to have the discussion, you’ll never solve it.” He added, “I can’t believe that you are defending the position that there’s no bias.”
Pence took the debate stage here under intense pressure to shift the campaign’s narrative in a way that benefits Trump. Last week, Trump missed several opportunities to put Clinton on the defensive.
Pence tried to correct his running mate’s errors. He fired barbs at Kaine over Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state and her comment at a fundraiser last month describing half of Trump’s supporters as “a basket of deplorables.”
“If Donald Trump had said all of the things that you’ve said he said in the way you said he said them, he still wouldn’t have a fraction of the insults that Hillary Clinton leveled when she said that half of our supporters were ‘a basket of deplorables,’ ” Pence said. “She said they were irredeemable, they were not American. I mean, it’s extraordinary.”
Pence was asked about a New York Times report, which relied on leaked pages from Trump’s 1995 tax returns, which showed that Trump had claimed a $916 million loss — and might have been able to avoid federal income taxes for up to 18 years. Pence did not make any claim that Trump had paid federal income taxes.
“His tax returns showed he went through a very difficult time, but he used the tax code the way it was meant to be used, and he used it brilliantly,” Pence said.
Kaine challenged Pence repeatedly to say why Trump had not released his tax returns, as other nominees have for 40 years. Pence repeated what Trump has said — that he would release the tax returns, but only when an Internal Revenue Service audit is over. The IRS has said that there is no legal prohibition on releasing taxes while they are under audit.
The vice-presidential candidates also clashed over entitlement spending, something the presidential candidates have not often discussed. Kaine argued that Pence and Trump would hurt the middle class by privatizing Social Security, calling Pence the “chief cheerleader” for such a plan during his time in the House.
“There they go again,” Pence responded curtly, echoing a line made famous by former president Ronald Reagan.
The Libertarian Party’s vice-presidential nominee, former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, did not participate in Tuesday’s debate because he and running mate Gary Johnson, a former New Mexico governor, did not meet a minimum national polling threshold. Weld offered his commentary throughout the debate via Twitter.
Clinton was expected to watch the debate from her home in Chappaqua, N.Y., aides said, while Trump had planned to watch and tweet about it from Las Vegas, where he is staying during a Western campaign swing.