Mike Pence and Tim Kaine clash in fiery vice presidential debate
FARMVILLE, Va. -- Indiana Gov. Mike Pence tried during Tuesday's vice presidential debate to stanch the damage from disclosures that Donald Trump may not have paid federal income taxes for two decades, insisting his running mate showed business a...
FARMVILLE, Va. -- Indiana Gov. Mike Pence tried during Tuesday's vice presidential debate to stanch the damage from disclosures that Donald Trump may not have paid federal income taxes for two decades, insisting his running mate showed business acumen when he declared a nearly $1 billion loss.
"He went through a very difficult time, but he used the tax code just as it's supposed to be used and he used it brilliantly," Pence said. "Donald Trump has created tens of thousands of jobs."
The statement came during the beginning of a surprisingly fiery debate between Pence and Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, the Democrat on Hillary Clinton's ticket. The pair, debating at Longwood University, frequently interrupted each other and accused their opponents of dishonesty as they argued over a range of topics, including foreign policy, the economy, taxes, the federal budget, criminal justice and immigration.
Pence at one point accused Kaine and Clinton of lodging "an avalanche of insults," while Kaine accused Pence and Trump of running an "insult-driven campaign." Moderator Elaine Quijano looked like a traffic cop for much of the evening, trying to keep the candidates from talking over each other and her.
Kaine prodded Pence repeatedly over Trump's failure to release his full tax returns and mocked Trump for bragging during last week's debate that not paying taxes would show that he is smart.
"So it's smart not to pay for our military? It's smart not to pay for our veterans?" Kaine said. "It's smart not to pay our teachers? So I guess the rest of us who do pay for those things are stupid."
"I can't imagine how Gov. Pence can defend the impulse-driven, selfish me-first style of Donald Trump," he added.
Kaine called out Trump for demeaning Mexicans who cross the border illegally, questioning President Barack Obama's birthplace and lodging a host of other insults. But he also had to answer for Clinton, who has been dogged by questions over fundraising, paid speeches, and the private email server she used as secretary of State.
"There's a reason why people question the trustworthiness of Hillary Clinton," Pence said. "And that's because they're paying attention."
Kaine said Clinton proved her trustworthiness by committing to helping others before she entered politics. And he raised his son's military service to declare her fitness to lead the nation's armed forces.
"We trust her with the most important thing in our life," Kaine said. "The thought of Donald Trump as commander in chief scares us to death."
But Pence was just as aggressive in attacking Clinton for failures in the economy and national security during President Obama's tenure. He accused Clinton of planning to stifle the economy with high taxes and regulations.
"The American people know that we need to make a change," Pence said. "We see remarkable portions of the world ... literally spinning out of control."
Pence countered that Clinton helped start the process to cut a deal to halt Iran's nuclear program and worked in the Obama administration when Osama Bin Laden was killed.
The two clashed again when the discussion turned to law enforcement.
Pence took aim at Clinton's and Kaine's assessment that the criminal justice system is beset with institutional racism. "Senator, please, enough of this seizing every opportunity to demean law enforcement broadly" by charging "implicit bias."
Kaine expressed incredulity at Pence's comment. "Those who say we should not be able to bring up or talk about bias in the system will never be able to solve the problem," he said. "I can't believe you are defending the position there is no bias."
Kaine then pivoted into an attack on Trump, reciting the GOP nominee's demeaning comments about Mexican immigrants, women and war hero John McCain, the Arizona senator. "If you want to have a society where people are respected and respect laws, you can't have somebody at the top who demeans everybody," he said.
When the debate turned to immigration, Kaine accused Pence and Trump of planning for a "deportation force" that remove 16 million people from the country.
"They want to go house to house, school to school, business to business and kick out 16 million people," Kaine said.
Pence called the description "nonsense." He said his and Trump's plan to strengthen the borders and aggressively enforce existing laws contrasts with the Democratic plan, which he labeled amnesty.
"They have a plan for open borders," Pence said. "They call it comprehensive immigration reform on Capitol Hill. We all know the routine. It's amnesty. "
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A strong performance by Pence was considered crucial for Trump because of his poor showing last week and a series of controversies that followed, including his insults of a Venezuelan American beauty queen, the disclosure of a tax filing that showed Trump may not have paid federal income taxes for two decades and the suspension of his charity foundation this week by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
Republicans were looking to the more disciplined and politically experienced Pence to shift the conversation to Trump's core message that the middle class and working poor have been left behind by changes in the economy. Trump had some early success in his matchup with Clinton last week when he hammered her for some of the economic policies implemented by Democrats that he argued caused massive job losses. But he quickly lost any advantage he had gained as he strayed off message and into boastful tangents, personal insults and interruptions.
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Trump's missteps on the debate stage proved costly to his campaign at a time he had come close to catching Clinton in the polls. She now leads by an average of nearly four percentage points nationally, according to Real Clear Politics. Clinton's position in battleground states also has improved, with a six-percentage-point lead in New Hampshire and a cushion of four percentage points in Pennsylvania.
Trump, however, is far from knocked out. He leads in Ohio by nearly four and is within striking distance in Florida, both states he almost certainly must win to take the White House.
Four years ago, Vice President Joe Biden faced the same pressure Pence was to be under Tuesday night. Biden was tasked with reclaiming campaign momentum in his 2012 debate, after Obama turned in a poor performance that year in his first faceoff with Mitt Romney.
"While it can't be a reset, it can certainly be a moment of rehabilitation and putting things back on track," said Scott Mulhauser, Biden's deputy chief of staff in the 2012 campaign.
Pence and Kaine are more traditional representatives of their parties than Trump and Clinton. They are far less well-known than the presidential nominees and less divisive.
Many conservatives turned off by Trump's unorthodox brand of Republicanism have put their faith in Pence, a longtime social and fiscal hardliner, in hopes that he can smooth some of Trump's edges. But his task is a hard one, given Trump's dominance on the ticket.
"It'll be very difficult," said Michael Steel, a political consultant who helped prepare House Speaker Paul Ryan for his 2012 vice presidential debate against Biden. "I don't think anyone has any doubt that Mike Pence is a consistent and committed conservative, and there's not really much that Pence can say to convince (voters) that Donald Trump is as well."
Biden suggested Tuesday that, in his case, it helped that he was in lockstep with his running mate. Asked whether he had any advice for the debaters, Biden said at an event in Washington, "Think about whether you made the right decision."
Biden then pointed toward the White House. "It could be a long day in that office over there if you don't agree with the president," he said. The remark was aimed at the substantial share of the Trump agenda that Pence has signed onto only recently, as well as the vastly different leadership styles of Trump and Pence.
Kaine has his own challenges, given the distrust many voters have in Clinton. Democrats have tried to highlight his personal story, including his missionary work in Honduras. Kaine, a former mayor of the state capital of Richmond and governor of Virginia, has been viewed in the Senate as a consensus-builder with a keen interest in the intricacies of policy.
That puts him in league with Pence, who served in the House, where he championed small government and held a strong opposition to abortion.