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Democrat Kaine and Republican Pence squared off to highlight their capabilities as the men who could be a heartbeat away from the presidency, but essentially they were on stage fighting a proxy war for their running mates five weeks before Election Day on November 8.
Kaine, a US senator from Virginia, promoted himself as a deeply experienced local, state and national politician who would be the “right hand person” for Clinton, whom he described as trustworthy and more than capable in the role of commander in chief.
“The thought of Donald Trump as commander in chief scares us to death,” Kaine said.
“I can’t imagine how Governor Pence can defend the insult-driven, selfish, me-first style of Donald Trump,” Kaine said, vocalizing his primary strategy of forcing Pence to on to the back foot about the brash Republican billionaire at every turn.
An imperturbable Pence, the governor of Indiana and a Christian conservative, calmly shot back.
“You would know a lot about an insult-driven campaign,” he said, highlighting Clinton’s relentless criticism of Trump and how she painted half of her Republican rival’s supporters as “deplorables.”
“We see entire portions of the world, particularly the wider Middle East, spinning out of control. The situation we’re watching hour by hour in Syria today is the result of the weak foreign policy that Hillary Clinton helped lead in this administration and create.”
For many Americans, it will be their first prolonged exposure to the men who would be next in line for the presidency if their side wins on November 8.
Both sought to convince undecided voters that their bosses are worthy of the Oval Office.
‘Shooting himself in the foot’
Pence is as modest and polite in style as Trump is brash and insulting, while Kaine, also with a modest style on Capitol Hill, appeared to take a more aggressive stance than Pence in attacking the rival camp.
Polls show Clinton gaining in the wake of a punishing week for her Republican rival Trump, who was hammered by controversies over his taxes and his treatment of women.
Kaine sought to drill down on those issues, demanding Trump release his tax returns, and appearing to try to bait Trump about his impulsive habit of tweeting missteps during the campaign.
“Donald Trump can’t start a Twitter war with Miss Universe without shooting himself in the foot,” Kaine said, referring to Trump’s rants against Alicia Machado, a beauty queen whom he called “Miss Piggy” when she gained weight after winning her crown.
The two men repeatedly talked over each over as they clashed about Trump’s failure to release his tax records, social security, how to handle an aggressive Russia, and the prospect of mounting debt, forcing moderator Elaine Quijano to intervene and insist they cut it out.
Kaine, 58, and Pence, 57, are about 10 years younger than the presidential nominees. They each are fathers of a son serving in the US military, and they are seen as more engaged with their faith than Clinton and Trump.
Weighing heavily against the New York billionaire are a mediocre performance in his first debate with Clinton, followed by revelations of a $916 million loss in 1995 that may have meant he paid no taxes for several years, and criticism of his demeaning treatment of Machado.
Pence, who spent a dozen years in Congress, is known for his discipline. He has prepared intensively for the debate, unlike Trump, who did little to practice for his September 26 encounter with Clinton.
‘Strike’ Assad regime
On Russia, Pence stressed that a Trump administration would want the US to “use military force to strike the targets of the Assad regime” if Russia continued its involvement in “this barbaric attack on Aleppo.”
But the Republican clearly distanced himself from Trump’s praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, hailing the US system as “superior to the crony corrupt cabal system in Russia in every way.”
Kaine hammered away though, insisting that “Donald Trump, again and again, has praised Vladimir Putin and it’s clear that he has business dealings with Russian oligarchs.”
“Trump has business dealings with Russia that he refuses to disclose,” while “Hillary clinton has gone toe to toe with Russia.”
Pence assailed Clinton while pushing a larger theme of change — something many Americans say they want — including his call for “repealing Obamacare lock, stock, and barrel.”
Since the first presidential debate, support for Clinton has risen to 44.3 percent against 40.6 percent for Trump, according to an average of recent national polls compiled by RealClearPolitics.
A second round of presidential debates is set for Sunday. The format will be a bit different, with candidates fielding questions put to them by people in the audience.