FARMVILLE, Va. — Republican Mike Pence and Democrat Tim Kaine, the vice presidential nominees who have been overshadowed by the raucous presidential race, squabbled intensely in a debate Tuesday night that reflected the bitter tone coming from the top of both tickets.
They repeatedly interrupted, talked at the same time, and drew admonishments from the moderator in a sharp proxy battle that was intensely negative, while also aimed mostly at shoring up each party’s core supporters.
“I can’t imagine how Governor Pence can defend the insult first, me-first style of Donald Trump,” Kaine said in the opening moments of the debate.
“You and Hillary Clinton would know about an insult-driven campaign,” Pence responded.
Kaine and Pence are relatively unknown, but they also don’t carry the same negative baggage as their running mates. Some observers had expected that without the personal animosity and character attacks that plague the presidential contest, the vice presidential debate would feature a more sober discussion of policy differences, which has been largely absent during the campaign.
That didn’t happen.
Instead, they often talked over each other — “Let me interrupt you!” Pence said at one point — and eventually triggered moderator Elaine Quijano to plead, “The people at home cannot understand either one of you when you talk over each other.”
The 90-minute face-off , taking place at Longwood University in central Virginia, was the only vice presidential debate, and was the first time — and quite possibly the last — that many viewers will get more than a fleeting glimpse of the undercard contenders.
Kaine frequently interrupted as he tried to drape Trump’s controversial statements around Pence. He listed disparaging comments that Trump has made about Hispanics, African-Americans, and women. After Kaine brought up Trump’s description of Mexicans as rapists and criminals, Pence blurted out, “You whipped out that Mexican thing again.”
Pence — relying on skills honed as a talk radio host who was often calm with hostile callers — appeared more measured and unflappable than Kaine and articulated conservative doctrine on issues like Russia and abortion in ways that Trump has not, in a bid to reassure the Republican base. He mentioned two points of vulnerability — the Clinton Foundation and Clinton’s comments that half of Trump’s supporters are “deplorables” — more frequently than Trump did in the first presidential debate.
As Kaine used a prosecutorial tone to highlight Trump’s comments, Pence several times incorrectly disputed that the comments were said at all, while at other times declined to respond to the attacks.
Toward the end, though, Pence conceded that his running mate may have made verbal miscues.
“Look, he’s not a polished politician like you and Hillary Clinton,” he told Kaine.
Pence also found a way to criticize the kind of preparation that Clinton used in the first debate when Kaine delivered a rehearsed line: “Do you want a ‘You’re hired’ president in Hillary Clinton, or a ‘You’re fired’ president in Donald Trump?”
“I appreciated the you’re-hired, you’re-fired thing,” Pence responded. “Your running mate uses a bunch of pre-done lines.”
Kaine had a zinger ready for why Trump is unqualified to be commander-in-chief.
“Donald Trump can’t start a Twitter war with Miss Universe without shooting himself in the foot.”
Again, Pence pounced on a line that he implied came from a practiced politician.
“Did you work on that a long time?” Pence said.
The animosity belied the more affable reputation both men carried into the debate.
Kaine is a harmonica-playing, Harvard Law-educated former Virginia governor who is known for a low-key demeanor. The debate site, in the state where Kaine was chief executive for four years and which he has represented in the Senate since 2013, was chosen before the candidates were known.
Pence, the Indiana governor, is a conservative firebrand and former congressman whose evangelical background and credibility with socially conservative voters helped persuade Trump to put him on the ticket.
Pence and Kaine opened the debate with a tense back and forth over foreign policy. Kaine tried, and failed, at one point to inject Russian leader Vladimir Putin into the conversation.
“I must have hit a nerve here,” Pence said when Putin’s name came up. “We’ve weakened America’s place around the world,” he added, placing the blame at Clinton’s feet.
Kaine shot back at one point: “You sound like Donald Trump’s apprentice.”
“You guys love Russia,” Kaine said later. “You both have said Vladimir Putin is a better leader than the president.”
Pence didn’t take the bait and in fact seemed to offer a far more negative view of the Russian leader than Trump has.
He referred to Putin as “the small and bullying leader of Russia” and accused Clinton of being the architect of Obama’s “feckless” foreign policy.
“Provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength,” Pence said.
Kaine said that Trump has an affection for the world’s strongmen. “He loves dictators,” Kaine said. “He’s got kind of a personal Mount Rushmore, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, Moammar Gadhafi.”
Kaine and Pence paused the bickering over one policy: The importance of community policing.
Kaine said that building relations between police and citizens is a significant way to curb some of the violence that has spurred riots.
“At the risk of agreeing with you, community policing is a great idea,” Pence said.
But they sharply disagreed on the tone taken with police.
“Please,” said Pence, “enough of this seeking every opportunity to demean law enforcement.” It was a reference to Clinton’s comment during the last debate that all people, including the police, need to examine whether they have an “inherent bias” when dealing with minorities.
“If you’re afraid to have the discussion we’ll never have it,” replied Kaine, saying that Americans need to have frank talks about race.
The two men also fought vigorously over the family foundations set up by Clinton and Trump.
Pence said that the Clinton Foundation is a “pay to play” operation that was set up to give the Clintons “a platform to travel the world” while paying staff. He noted that the Clinton Foundation accepted tens of millions of dollars from foreign governments while Clinton was secretary of state.
Kaine defended his running mate. “The Clinton Foundation does an awful lot of good work” he said.
Kaine noted that Trump’s foundation has many well-documented problems, including using the funds to make a political contribution to the attorney general in Florida who was considering investigating one of Trump’s businesses.
Pence entered the debate needing to bolster the ticket after its worst stretch of the campaign. Trump spent most of last week feuding with a former Miss Universe whom he criticized for gaining weight. He was set back even further by a New York Times report that he may have gone 18 years without paying federal income taxes after declaring nearly $1 billion in losses on his 1995 returns.
When asked about the revelation, Pence said, “He used the tax code just the way it was supposed to be used.”
Pence is a strong opponent of abortion rights and has pushed to defund Planned Parenthood, a group Trump has supported in the past.
“Why don’t you trust women to make this choice for themselves?” Kaine asked.
“Because a society can be judged by how it deals with its most vulnerable, the aged the infirmed, the disabled — and the unborn,” Pence said. “I believe it with all my heart.”