FARMVILLE, Va. — Tim Kaine and Mike Pence both embraced the role of attack dog here Tuesday, using the only vice presidential debate to focus on reinforcing the most negative perceptions of their opponent over defending the top of their own ticket.
Pence, the Republican governor of Indiana, attempted to paint Hillary Clinton as symbolic of “the status quo,” while Democratic Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine frequently challenged him to defend the bombastic statements running mate Donald Trump has made throughout the campaign.
Related: Where to Recap the Debate
Both accused the other of running a more insulting campaign during a showdown here at Longwood University that was characterized by frequent interruptions. Pence at times seemed unwilling or unable to fully explain his opponents words as Kaine came off as an eager aggressor frequently talking over Pence to deliver prepared jabs.
“He’s not a polished politician like you and Hillary Clinton,” Pence conceded as Kaine questioned him about Trump's past comments on abortion.
Kaine spent most of the night bringing up Trump's now notorious comments on Mexicans, praise of Russian leader Vladimir Putin and a number of Trump's other most incendiary comments.
“Six times I’ve asked you to defend your running mate,” Kaine said about an hour into the debate. “Six times you’ve refused to do so. He's asking people to vote for somebody he cannot defend.”
“I am very, very happy to defend Donald Trump,” Pence countered.
The Republican spent the sparring match charging that Clinton is running an “insults driven campaign,” citing her recent comments that half of Trump’s supporters belong to a basket of deplorables.
At multiple times throughout the 90-minute debate, Kaine also attempted to hit Pence for Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns and a recent New York Times report that found he may have avoided paying taxes for 18 years.
“He went through a very difficult time, but he used the tax the way it’s supposed to be used,” Pence said.
Trump and his surrogates have argued he has “brilliantly” used the nation’s tax laws to benefit his business.
“So it’s smart not to pay for our military, it’s smart not to pay for veterans, it’s smart not to pay for teachers,” Kaine said. “So I guess all of us who do pay for those things, I guess we’re stupid.”
Pence's best moments were when he went on the offensive on foreign policy.
He pinned the growing threat of terrorism on Clinton and said her work as secretary of state helped lead to the rise of ISIS.
“We are back at war in Iraq,” Pence said.
The GOP vice presidential candidate entered Tuesday’s showdown burdened with the fallout from his running mate’s shaky debate performance and a week of bad headlines for the GOP ticket. Most polls released after last Monday’s showdown found Clinton leading Trump both nationally and in key battleground states.
Even before Tuesday, Pence, who endorsed Trump rival Ted Cruz during the GOP presidential primary, has struggled at times to explain his running mate’s incendiary comments and the two have differed on major policy issues.
Before being chosen at Trump’s No. 2, Pence openly opposed his Muslim ban, supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership and praised the North American Free Trade Agreement — three major cornerstones of Trump’s campaign that the two have differed on.
Those policy issues played only a minor role in the debate, however, as both focused on more on personal jabs.
Both men represent wildly unpopular presidential candidates.
Just 31 percent of the country sees Clinton as more "honest and straightforward" than Trump, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released last month. The same survey found just 23 percent of respondents think Trump has the “right temperament” to be commander-in-chief.