Updated Oct. 5, 2016 12:51 a.m. ET
FARMVILLE, Va.—In a lively and combative debate between the two vice-presidential nominees on Tuesday night here, Republican Mike Pence and Democrat Tim Kaine each cast the other party’s presidential nominee as an unacceptable choice for a country facing
Although neither presidential candidate was on the stage, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton loomed large over the only scheduled debate between the vice-presidential nominees—with the political vulnerabilities and perceived character liabilities of Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton dominating the bulk of the debate between Messrs. Kaine and Pence.
The aggressive tone of the debate was set early, with Mr. Kaine embracing the traditional vice-presidential role as the chief attack dog and Mr. Pence sketching out a surprisingly far more confrontational stance against Russia than has been voiced by Mr. Trump.
MORE ON ELECTION 2016
- Recap: The Kaine-Pence Debate
- Photos: Vice-Presidential Debate
- Stakes Rise for Mike Pence in Vice-Presidential Debate
- Kaine’s Role Is Bolstered by His Popularity at Home
- Mike Pence, Tim Kaine Fail to Sway Undecided Voters in VP Debate
Mr. Pence did earn high marks from analysts for his cool-under-pressure debating style in the face of frequent interruptions by Mr. Kaine—especially compared with Mr. Trump’s uneven debate performance last week.
A CNN/ORC instant poll conducted among debate viewers gave Mr. Pence, Indiana’s governor, a narrow win.
At the same time, Mr. Pence often found himself on the defensive, largely avoiding opportunities to explain some of Mr. Trump’s most controversial statements about banning Muslims from immigrating to the U.S., his litany of disparaging comments about women and his statements that many Mexican immigrants were “rapists.”
Moderator Elaine Quijano of CBS News struggled at times to keep the candidates from talking over each other—with both seeming well-prepared for the debate, knowledgeable on policy and eager to engage with one another.
Still, it’s rare for a vice-presidential debate to influence the course of the race, especially given the oversized presence of the two candidates at the top of the tickets.
“People don’t vote for vice president. They vote for president,” said Lynda Tran, a Democratic consultant and a partner at the firm 270 Strategies, which has consulted for Mrs. Clinton’s campaign. “But what a vice-presidential debate allows people to do is get to know someone who is going to be a heartbeat away.”
Sen. Tim Kaine speaks with moderator Elaine Quijano of CBS News. STEVE HELBER/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Mr. Kaine, a U.S. senator from Virginia and a former governor and mayor of Richmond, set the aggressive tone early by quickly calling into question Mr. Trump’s fitness to serve as president. Mr. Kaine said that Mrs. Clinton should be trusted because of her lifelong history “focused on serving others.”
Mr. Pence portrayed Mr. Trump as an agent of change, while criticizing Mrs. Clinton for advocating tax increases and increased regulation, as well as her support for the Affordable Care Act, her use of a private email server for government business and her family foundation’s acceptance of foreign government dollars.
Mr. Pence’s harsher stance against Russia was striking, given that Mr. Trump has praised President Vladimir Putin as a strong leader and called for better relations between the two countries.
Mr. Pence said the U.S. must be willing to meet with “force” any resistance from the Syrian government and Russia in the conflict against terrorist groups in Syria. He also said the U.S. should do more to prevent Russian provocation in Eastern Europe, and blamed the Obama administration and Mrs. Clinton’s “weak and feckless” leadership for allowing Russia to gain influence around the world.
It was unclear whether Mr. Pence was distancing himself from Mr. Trump’s position or offering a new set of talking points for the GOP ticket.
On terrorism and foreign policy, both vice-presidential nominees cast the other’s running mate as ill-equipped to protect the country.
Mr. Kaine talked up the Obama administration’s foreign-policy successes under Mrs. Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, including the killing of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. By contrast, he said, “Donald Trump can’t start a Twitter war with Miss Universe without shooting himself in the foot.”
Mr. Pence charged the U.S. is “less safe today than it was the day that Barack Obama became president.”
Some of the sharpest exchanges between the two candidates came over the recent revelation that Mr. Trump had taken a $916 million loss on his 1995 tax return, a sum that could have allowed him to avoid paying personal income taxes for 18 years. Mr. Trump bragged on the debate stage last week that he was “smart” to reduce his tax liability as much as possible.
“So it’s smart not to pay for our military? It’s smart not to pay for veterans?” Mr. Kaine asked on the debate stage. “So I guess all of us who do pay for those things, I guess we’re stupid.”
Mr. Pence retorted: “Do you take all the deductions that you’re entitled to? I do.”
The two clashed over refugee policy, as Mr. Pence defended the Trump proposal to use “extreme vetting” to screen out Syrians and other refugees from countries that harbor terrorists, and he criticized Mrs. Clinton for proposing an expansion of the number of Syrians allowed into the U.S.
Mr. Kaine accused Mr. Trump of proposing unconstitutional limits based on national origin or religion. “Hillary and I will do immigration enforcement and we’ll vet refugees based on whether they are dangerous or not,” he said.
Some Republicans saw Mr. Pence’s performance as evidence that their party would have been better off with a different presidential nominee.
“This debate highlights the tragedy of Trump’s nomination for the GOP. Whenever the topic is anything but Trump himself, Pence is clearly winning,” said Michael Steel, who worked for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush during the primaries and for the party’s 2012 vice-presidential nominee, Rep. Paul Ryan.
Mr. Pence succeeded in launching several attacks against Mrs. Clinton that Mr. Trump failed to raise in last week’s debate. He criticized the Clinton Foundation for accepting funds from foreign governments and foreign donors, and charged Mrs. Clinton with running a “pay to play” operation.
Mr. Kaine defended the foundation, calling it one of the “highest-rated charities,” and attacked Mr. Trump’s own foundation, which the New York attorney general this week ordered to stop fundraising in the state because it lacks the proper certification.
—Janet Hook, Laura Meckler and Allison Kite
contributed to this article.
Write to Byron Tau at firstname.lastname@example.org, Rebecca Ballhaus at Rebecca.Ballhaus@wsj.com and Beth Reinhard at email@example.com
Tags: Clinton, Donald Trump, Elaine Quijano, foreign policy, Hillary Clinton, immigration, Joe Biden, Kaine, Mike Pence, Obama Administration, Pence, policing, refugee policy, Russia, tax return, Taxes, terrorism, Tim Kaine, Trump, Vice President, Vice-presidential nominees