Rumble of the running mates: 7 highlights from U.S. vice-presidential debate

There’s an old cliché when it comes to the traditional baseline mandate for vice-presidential running mates: “Do no harm.”

Republican Mike Pence succeeded in that regard during Tuesday night’s debate. But not so much when it came to defending his presidential running mate and would-be boss Donald Trump.

The vice-presidential matchup between Democratic senator from Virginia Tim Kaine and Pence, a former governor of Indiana, was a defensive contest, at least on one side.

Kaine, standing in for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, came out as the jumpy aggressor, often interrupting his opponent and delivering blow after blow about Trump’s failure to disclose his tax returns, praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin, incendiary remarks about Mexicans and cavalier endorsement of nuclear proliferation.

Pence, adopting a smoother, more measured delivery, scoffed at what he termed an “avalanche of insults” and refused to play the role of apologist-in-chief by sidestepping, ignoring or denying the veracity of statements attributed to Trump.

Kaine parried attacks about Clinton’s use of a private email server and foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation, and was called out early in the evening for using an oft-used line from his stump speeches (“Do you want a ‘you’re hired’ president in Hillary Clinton, or do you want a ‘you’re fired’ president in Donald Trump?”).

On the biggest stage of their careers, Pence and Kaine only needed to avoid gaffes and hold serve. Judging from Tuesday night’s performance, the only VP debate of the general election won’t likely move the needle.

Here are some key moments:

On ‘insult-driven’ campaigns

VP candidates spar over ‘insult-driven’ campaign accusations1:56

In a broad attack on Trump, Kaine recited a list of offensive comments Trump has made about Mexicans as “rapists,” women as “pigs” and “slobs,” Arizona senator John McCain not being a war hero because he was captured in Vietnam, and the impartiality of a federal judge because of his Mexican descent.

Pence turned the argument around, saying those remarks paled in comparison to Clinton’s dismissal of Trump supporters as belonging to a “basket of deplorables.”

On the ‘end’ of illegal immigration

“Donald Trump has laid out a plan to end illegal immigration once and for all in this country,” Pence said, adding falsely that Clinton supports “open borders.”

Kaine shot back that Trump believes in the “deportation nation” of 16 million undocumented residents, rather than in seeking a bipartisan immigration reform and a path to citizenship for tax-paying workers with clean criminal records.

Mike Pence-debate

Republican U.S. vice presidential nominee Mike Pence scored points in the ‘attack dog’ role often seen in VP debates, but was less able to defend some of Donald Trump’s previous statements. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

On faith and public policy

Both running mates are deeply religious, though Kaine is a Catholic and Pence an evangelical Christian.

Asked how they reconcile their faith with public policy, they diverged, with Kaine saying he has chosen to uphold the law, even when it has clashed with his personal beliefs on abortion and the death penalty.

On a ‘maniac’ with nuclear weapons

VP candidates on nuclear weapons0:30

 Kaine, quoting former president Ronald Reagan, said the problem with nuclear proliferation is that “some fool or maniac could trigger a catastrophic event.” He added: “I think that’s who Gov. Pence’s running mate is.”

“That was even beneath you and Hillary Clinton,” Pence replied. “And that’s pretty low.”

On abortion and ‘punishing’ women

Pence said his faith informs his life, and that it “begins with cherishing the dignity, the worth, the value of every human life.”

Asked by Kaine why Trump previously made comments musing that women could be subject to some form of “punishment” for making the decision to have an abortion, Pence replied, “He is not a polished politician like you and Hillary Clinton.”

On defending Trump

In contrast to Kaine’s sometimes frenetic manner, Pence kept a cool demeanour throughout the night as he sidestepped the Virginia senator’s efforts to engage him in a defence of Trump.


Democratic candidate for Vice President Tim Kaine, left, was often frenetic during the only debate between the rivals, a contrast to the easy-going personality he’s shown on the campaign trail. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

Frustrated, Kaine declared: “Six times tonight I have said to Gov. Pence, I can’t imagine how you can defend your running mate’s position on one issue after the next. And in all six cases he has refused to defend them…Yet he’s asking everybody to vote for somebody that he cannot defend.”

On ‘that Mexican thing’ — again

At several moments, Pence appeared to try to nail Kaine on repeating and drilling hard on certain talking points. Towards the end of the debate, Kaine again tried to get Pence to respond to Trump’s comments referring to many Mexicans as “rapists.”

“You whipped out that Mexican thing again,” Pence remarked drolly.

“Can you defend it?” Kaine asked.

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