Attacks on Clinton, Trump Fuel VP Debate
FARMVILLE, Va. – Tim Kaine and Mike Pence willingly accepted the role of attack dogs in Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate, relentlessly bringing the conversation back to the top of the ticket and trying to drive home the negative themes that have made Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump the two most unpopular presidential candidates in recent history.
Kaine, a Democratic senator from Virginia, repeatedly turned his answers into a laundry list of Trump’s most controversial statements, including calling some Mexican immigrants “rapists,” and seized opportunities to call out the GOP nominee for refusing to release his tax returns. Multiple times, he pushed Pence on his unwillingness to defend Trump. Kaine set the tone immediately and attacked Trump in the first question of the night by saying that with a son in the military, he and his wife trust Clinton as commander-in-chief, but “the thought of Donald Trump as commander-in-chief scares us to death.”
Pence, the Republican Indiana governor, said he was willing to defend Trump but consistently avoided engaging on the substance of Kaine’s criticisms or defending Trump’s comments. Instead, Pence brought the conversation back to Clinton and attacked her on a variety of issues that Trump left on the table during the first presidential debate, from the Clinton Foundation and her private email server to her tenure as secretary of state.
Vice presidential debates rarely have the impact that presidential debates do, but Pence and Kaine both entered Tuesday with clear objectives: Kaine to maintain the momentum Clinton garnered from her performance in the first debate and to continue to put the Trump campaign on the defensive after a week of distractions and sagging polls; Pence, to defend the top of the ticket while more aggressively attacking Clinton on her negatives.
It was also an opportunity for both to introduce themselves: an ABC News poll released Sunday found that more than 40 percent of the country could not name either vice presidential nominee.
Stylistically, the debate was a stark contrast to the presidential debate last week. Kaine repeatedly interrupted and spoke over Pence, rarely allowing the governor to get in a complete sentence or rebuttal without having to speak over his opponent. Kaine did defend Clinton in several instances, praising her leadership at the State Department and lauding the work of the Clinton Foundation, but for the vast majority of the debate, his focus was on Trump.
Pence, meanwhile, remained poised and decisively on message, and did not allow himself to get drawn into the criticisms lobbed at him and Trump, instead throwing the focus back on Clinton and Kaine, describing the Democrats’ campaign as an “avalanche of insults.”
In one indicative exchange, Kaine issued an extended criticism of Trump, saying he had started a “Twitter war” with a former Miss Universe contestant, criticized U.S. generals, praised Vladimir Putin and said that more countries should develop nuclear weapons. Pence, eventually appearing exasperated, interrupted to say, “Oh, come on,” and accused Kaine of spinning pre-planned attacks.
“Did you work on that one a long time?” Pence asked. “Because that had a lot of really creative lines in it.”
“Well, I'm going to see if you can defend any of it,” Kaine shot back.
Pence began to say, “I can defend,” but then changed track and unleashed his own list of criticisms of Clinton and President Obama’s foreign policy, attacking their record in Iraq, fighting ISIS and on the Iranian nuclear agreement. He didn’t address the string of Kaine’s criticisms of Trump.
After the debate, Democrats tried to highlight Pence’s decision to pass on several opportunities to more forcefully defend his running mate. Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon said it appeared Pence was “auditioning for 2020.”
“He took a pass on issue after issue,” Fallon said. “He was not interested in engaging or defending Donald Trump on some of his most outrageous comments.”
Trump Campaign Manager Kellyanne Conway disputed that characterization.
“He’s on his ticket so he agrees with him,” Conway said. She also criticized Kaine for constantly interrupting and said he didn’t understand the protocol of a formal debate.
“I was surprised he wasn’t more prepared for the format,” Conway said. “That he didn’t know that when you answer a question you give – you know, I learned it in kindergarten – you give the other person time to answer also.”
Pence also notably broke with Trump at points, including when he described Putin as a “small and bullying leader,” despite Trump having praised Putin on the campaign trail, including saying he was a stronger leader than Obama (something Pence agreed with at the time, though he called the attack false during the debate).
At one point, Pence also seemed to concede one of Trump’s missteps on pro-life issues, though he followed it up with one of his staunchest defenses of the Republican nominee during the debate.
Kaine brought up Trump’s statement in March that women should face “some form of punishment” for abortion, something that was widely criticized by pro-life groups and that Trump later walked back.
“Look, he’s not a polished politician like you and Hillary Clinton,” Pence said in reference to Trump’s comments on abortion. He later added, “I couldn’t be more proud to stand with Donald Trump, who’s standing with the right to life."
It’s unclear whether Tuesday night’s debate will match the first presidential debate as a defining moment in the campaign, particularly with Clinton and Trump’s second debate just five days from now. But in their only opportunity to face off against each other, Kaine and Pence left nothing on the table.
Emily Goodin contributed to this report.