Indiana Republican Gov. Mike Pence and Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine met this evening for the only vice presidential debate of 2016. Many expected the 90-minute faceoff at Longwood University in Farmville, Va., to be a cordial affair, and it largely was, but both came armed with plenty of barbs to throw at the other.
Ultimately, the debate was as much about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as it was about the men vying for the No. 2 job. Throughout the evening, each had to defend their running mate’s controversies — Clinton’s email server and the Clinton Foundation and Trump’s controversial rhetoric and refusal to release his tax returns.
Pence repeatedly denied many things that his running mate had, in fact, previously said. But overall the Indiana governor — who, as a former radio talk show host is practiced in verbal sparring — gave a much stronger performance than Trump did just over a week ago. It also likely helped his own political prospects, win or lose come November 8. The two debaters often talked over each other and Kaine frequently tried to interrupt Pence. Both veered off topic several times, even as moderator Elaine Quijano of CBS News tried to direct them back.
The affable vice presidential candidates weren’t expected to be traditional attack dogs, but there were plenty of flashes of aggression from both Kaine and Pence, though nothing compared to Clinton and Trump during their first debate. Ultimately, elections are about the top of the ticket, and attention will soon shift to Sunday’s second debate in Saint Louis, Mo.
We recapped some of the key moments of the debate below. NPR politics and policy reporters also live fact-checked the debate.
- Overall, Pence performed well but he did end on the unfortunate soundbite of the evening. When Kaine again brought up the comments Trump had said about Mexican immigrants during his announcement speech, Pence responded, “Senator, you’ve whipped out that Mexican thing again.” He continued, saying that “there are criminal aliens in this country, Tim, who have come into this country illegally, who are perpetrating violence and taking American lives. He also said that many of them are good people, you keep leaving that out of your quote, and if you want me to go there I’ll go there.” Trump’s exact quote in his announcement speech was that, “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.”
- Both Kaine and Pence talked about their faith (Kaine is Catholic, while Pence is evangelical) and the topic quickly turned to abortion — something absent from the first presidential debate. Kaine talked about how he had to reconcile his own personal opposition to abortion to the rule of law and reiterated his ticket’s support for a woman’s right to choose. “Why don’t you trust women? Why doesn’t Donald Trump trust women to make this choice for themselves?” Kaine asked. But it was Pence who gave an impassioned defense for why he is anti-abortion — and why it was an important defense for evangelical and conservative voters who may be skeptical about Trump’s anti-abortion conversion. Trump doesn’t speak frequently about the issue on the trail, and when he has it’s been clear it’s not something he’s comfortable with. But this is in Pence’s wheelhouse. “My faith informs my life,” the Republican said. “I try to spend time on my knees every day. But it all for me begins with cherishing the dignity, the worth, the value of every human life.”
- Each candidate’s charitable foundations came under scrutiny and put their running mates on the defensive. Kaine defended the Clinton Foundation for the overseas charity work they do in providing AIDS medication and more, while Pence claimed the foundation was a way for foreign governments to gain influence with Clinton at the State Department. Kaine criticized the Donald J. Trump Foundation for the scrutiny it’s received, including reports that Trump used foundation money to buy a $10,000 portrait of himself and for an IRS penalty the foundation had to pay for donating to a political group linked to the Florida attorney general. Quijano interjected at the end that her original question was about North Korea — a familiar theme of the night as both men frequently veered off topic to reiterate their own campaign’s talking points and attack lines.
- Another frequent attack line of Kaine’s during the debate was over Trump’s past praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Pence claimed Trump hasn’t praised Putin (he has), argued that Putin would respect a Trump administration because of its “strength, plain and simple” and himself described Putin as the “small and bullying leader of Russia.” He also criticized Clinton for the failed reset of Russian relations while she was secretary of state. Kaine questioned if one of the reasons Trump doesn’t want to release his taxes is because there could be ties to Russian business dealings, like his former campaign manager Paul Manafort came under fire for. “When Donald Trump is sitting down with Vladimir Putin, is it going to be America’s bottom line, or is it going to be Donald Trump’s that he’s going to be worried about?” Kaine asked.
- Immigration — something that surprisingly didn’t come up at last week’s presidential debate — was another flashpoint between the two men. Kaine again criticized Trump for some of his hardline rhetoric on deportations and his proposal to ban Muslims from coming into the U.S. (though he’s had conflicting proposals on that). That led into another debate about the words each of their running mates use. “If Donald Trump had said all the things you said he said in the way you said he’s said them, he still wouldn’t have a fraction of the insults that Hillary Clinton leveled when she said that half of our supporters were a basket of deplorables,” Pence retorted.
- “At the risk of agreeing with you” certainly wasn’t a phrase we heard at last week’s first presidential debate, but for a brief moment Pence and Kaine appeared to agree that there was a need for more community policing. The agreement ended there though, as the two diverged on how to strike a balance between protecting law enforcement and black Americans. Kaine hit Pence for suggesting that there was no “implicit bias” in policing. Pence accused Clinton of “seizing on moments of tragedy” and, repeating a frequent refrain of his running mate, said that Trump would restore “law and order.”
- The two also clashed on one of the biggest revelations in the campaign so far — a New York Times report that Trump may have avoided paying federal taxes for nearly two decades because of a nearly $1 billion business loss in 1995. Pence tried to deflect the question, arguing that Trump was a “businessman, not a career politician” who “went through a very difficult time, but he used the tax code just the way it’s supposed to be used, and he did it brilliantly.” Pence argued that “Trump has created tens of thousands of jobs and he’s paid payroll taxes.” But Kaine punched back, hitting Trump’s comment at last week’s debate that not paying taxes made him “smart.” “So it’s smart not to pay for our military? it’s smart not to pay for veterans? And smart not to pay for teachers? And i guess all of us who do pay for those things, I guess we’re stupid?’
- Kaine was asked by Quijano to talk about why so many Americans distrust Clinton. Kaine defended his running mate as someone who has a “passion” for public service, pointing to her faith and legal work. He then pivoted quickly to attacking Trump. Kaine hit the GOP nominee as someone who “always puts himself first” and criticized him for his derogatory remarks about immigrants and for perpetuating the falsehood that President Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. Pence hit back, claiming it was the Clinton campaign that was running “an insult-driving campaign” and that “there’s a reason people question” Clinton’s trustworthiness. “And that’s because they’re paying attention. I mean, when she was secretary of state, Senator, come on. She had a Clinton Foundation accepting contributions from foreign governments.”
NPR’s Alejandra Maria Salazar contributed to this report.