VP debate sharpens lines of attack

VP debate sharpens lines of attack
© Greg Nash

FARMVILLE, Va. — Democrat Tim KaineTimothy Michael KaineWeek ahead: Crunch time for defense bill’s cyber reforms | Equifax under scrutiny Insurer Anthem to cover bare ObamaCare counties in Virginia Senate votes down Paul's bid to revoke war authorizations MORE and Republican Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceNew GOP ObamaCare repeal bill gains momentum Pence hires Freedom Caucus adviser for press secretary Lawmakers, pick up the ball on health care and reform Medicaid MORE repeatedly interrupted each other Tuesday at a spirited vice presidential debate in which both sought to go on the attack.  

Pence, a veteran of talk radio, sought to regain momentum for the GOP ticket after a difficult first presidential debate of 2016 for presidential nominee Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden slams Trump over golf gif hitting Clinton Trump Jr. declines further Secret Service protection: report Report: Mueller warned Manafort to expect an indictment MORE. He repeatedly pivoted from Trump's controversial comments to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden slams Trump over golf gif hitting Clinton Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax hit by earlier hack | What to know about Kaspersky controversy | Officials review EU-US privacy pact Overnight Tech: Equifax hit by earlier undisclosed hack | Facebook takes heat over Russian ads | Alt-right Twitter rival may lose domain MORE, whom he cast as a failed career public servant with severe ethical problems.  

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Kaine fought back with frequent interruptions and by talking over the Indiana governor to interject jabs at Trump. The almost constant stream of interruptions at the beginning of the event contrasted with Pence’s talk radio style that kept him collected as he looked right into the camera for many of his answers.  

While the debate lacked the fireworks of last week’s contest between Trump and Clinton, the two vice presidential nominees dug in their trenches to defend their running mates, who each sport historically low favorability ratings.  

Neither vice presidential nominee landed a death blow, though each employed a similar strategy. They sought to keep the debate focused on the top of the ticket and avoid questions about their running mates' largest liabilities: Clinton’s trustworthiness and Trump’s penchant for personal insults.  

The Virginia senator aired the Democrats’ laundry list of grievances against Trump throughout the debate, regularly relying on a flurry of prepared attack lines that at times drew ridicule from Pence.   

“Did you work on that one a long time? That had a lot of creative lines in it,” Pence jabbed after Kaine panned Trump for having a “personal Mount Rushmore of dictators” that included Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.  

Kaine opened the debate by harking back to the civil rights history at Longwood University, the debate site, where protests evolved into a case that became part of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision that struck down “separate but equal” schools.  

He linked Trump’s past encouragement of the conspiracy theory that President Obama was born outside of the United States as typical of his campaign’s divisiveness.  

“It is so painful that we suggest we go back to these days where an African-American could not be a citizen of this country,” Kaine said. “And I can’t imagine how Gov. Pence can defend the insult-driven, selfish, me-first style of Donald Trump.” 

He returned to the issue as he recounted Trump’s more controversial past statements, including his attacks on an Indiana-born federal judge with Mexican heritage and his demeaning comments about women.

But Pence shook his head as Kaine ran down the list, accusing Kaine’s characterizations of being off the mark and less controversial than how Clinton has labeled Trump supporters.  

“If Donald Trump had said all of the things you said he said in the ways you said he said, 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.’ She said they were ‘irredeemable,’ ” Pence said.  

“Senator, this ‘insult-driven campaign,’ that’s small potatoes compared to Hillary Clinton.” 

Tuesday’s debate also provided the highest-profile chance for the two sides to spar over weekend revelations from a New York Times report that showed Trump took a more than $900 million loss in 1995. That loss is so big that it could have enabled him to legally not pay federal income tax for 18 years.

The Clinton campaign has run with the revelations to tar Trump as skipping out on paying his fair share, and Kaine took the baton at the debate, arguing that he stiffed soldiers, veterans and teachers by avoiding income taxes.  

Pence, however, pushed back.

“We have a tax code that encourages business entrepreneurship. His tax returns showed he went through a really difficult time, but he used the tax code just the way it is supposed to be use,” Pence said.  

“With regard to paying taxes, this whole riff about him not paying taxes. … Donald Trump has created tens of thousands of jobs, and he’s paid payroll taxes and property taxes.” 

That back and forth, one of the most contentious of the night, devolved into the two candidates shouting over each other, prompting a rebuke by moderator Elaine Quijano. 

“Gentleman, the people at home cannot understand either of you when you talk over each other,” she said.  

Another flashpoint came as the two men sparred over Trump’s ties to Russia, a main Democratic line of attack.  

Kaine argued that Clinton was the only candidate who could stand up to Russia, criticizing Trump and Pence for praising Russia and noting former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s “shadowy connection with pro-Russian forces.” 

But Pence shot back that while America is stronger than Russia, it’s a shameful truth that Putin is a stronger leader than Obama.  

“Hillary Clinton’s top priority when she became secretary of State was the Russian reset. After the Russian reset, the Russians invaded Ukraine and took over Crimea. And the small and bullying leader of Russia is now dictating terms to the United States of America,” he said.  

“When Donald Trump and I observe that — as I’ve said in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine — that the small and bullying leader of Russia has been stronger on the world stage than this administration, that’s stating painful facts, that’s not an endorsement of Vladimir Putin. That’s an indictment of the weak and feckless leadership of Hillary Clinton and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaGOP rep: North Korea wants Iran-type nuclear deal Dems fear lasting damage from Clinton-Sanders fight Iran's president warns US will pay 'high cost' if Trump ditches nuclear deal MORE.” 

While Pence bested Kaine in CNN/ORC’s instant poll of debate watchers following the event, it’s unclear whether the night will move the needle back in Trump’s direction. Historically, vice presidential debates have little to no effect on the state of the race.  

It could, however, serve as a stopgap like Vice President Biden’s strong 2012 debate performance following a choppy first debate showing by Obama. 

But by the time the dust settles, the two presidential nominees will be heading toward their next showdown — Sunday night’s debate in St. Louis.