- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 4, 2016

FARMVILLE, Va. — GOP vice presidential nominee Mike Pence said Democrats are running a campaign based on an “avalanche of insults” as he and Sen. Tim Kaine squared off Tuesday in the only debate of the two down-ticket running mates.

The debate spanned issues from immigration to the economy to nuclear proliferation, and saw both men grapple with their Christian faith and how they apply it in public life.

But chiefly the two men were asked to explain many of the tough-to-defend moments of the two presidential candidates, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.

VOTE NOW: Who won the VP debate?

Mr. Kaine began with a devastating attack on Mr. Trump, saying that for himself and his wife, who have a son serving in the U.S. Marines, “the thought of Donald Trump as commander in chief scares us to death.”

But Mr. Kaine tried to breeze past challenges to Mrs. Clinton’s mishandling of classified information on her secret email account, saying the FBI cleared her of criminal wrongdoing and that should settle the issue for voters.

Mr. Pence, meanwhile, struggled to explain Mr. Trump’s handling of his own taxes after The New York Times reported this weekend that he claimed a nearly $1 billion net operating loss in 1995, perhaps canceling his federal tax liability for years.

SEE ALSO: Trump campaign on VP debate: ‘Amazing night’ for Mike Pence, ‘great night’ for Donald Trump

Donald Trump is a businessman, not a career politician. Those tax returns that came out this week showed that he faces some pretty tough times,” Mr. Pence said in the first and only vice presidential debate of 2016.

“I guess all of us that do pay our taxes are stupid,” countered Mr. Kaine.

Mr. Kaine found himself on tough ground when pressed on the country’s safety from terrorism after eight years of President Obama.

“The terrorist threat has decreased in some ways,” Mr. Kaine insisted — contradicting the assessment of national security experts who say al Qaeda remains a threat while the danger from terrorist-inspired lone wolf attacks has risen.

“America is less safe today than it was the day Barack Obama became president of the United States. It’s absolutely inarguable,” said Mr. Pence. “Mostly it’s been a lack of leadership.”

Mr. Kaine retorted that Mr. Trump’s idea of leadership is Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“If you don’t know the difference between a dictatorship and leadership, then you ought to go back to a fifth-grade civics class,” the Virginia senator said.

Neither Mr. Pence nor Mr. Kaine are particularly familiar faces to average voters. Heading into Tuesday’s debate, polling showed more than one-third of Americans either didn’t know who they are or didn’t know enough about them to form an opinion.

The two men went far deeper into policy than the two presidential candidates did last week in their first showdown.

On the economy, Mr. Pence tied Mrs. Clinton to the nearly $20 trillion national debt and the plodding economic recovery under Mr. Obama. “That we’ve almost doubled the national debt is atrocious,” he said.

Mr. Kaine said voters face a “fundamental choice” about who they choose to shepherd the economy.

“Do you want a ‘You are hired’ president in Hillary Clinton or a ‘You are fired’ president in Donald Trump?” he said, referring to Mr. Trump’s catchphrase from his hit realty TV show “The Apprentice.”

“What you all just heard out there is more taxes, $2 trillion in more spending, more deficits, more debt, more government, and if you think that is all worth it, look at the other side of the table,” he said. “The policies of this administration, which Hillary Clinton and Sen. Kaine want to continue, have run this economy into a ditch.”

Mr. Pence burnished his reputation as a conservative hero during his 12 years on Capitol Hill, where he caused headaches for GOP leaders by rallying against the Bush White House’s push for the No Child Left Behind expansion of federal education mandates and the Wall Street bailout of 2008.

He already has proven himself an asset by providing damage control after Mr. Trump got in a feud with a Gold Star family supporting Mrs. Clinton. Mr. Pence helped defuse the situation, reassuring crowds that he and Mr. Trump understand how it caused offense and voicing sympathy for the parents’ sacrifice.

Mr. Kaine, meanwhile, has helped soften Mrs. Clinton’s image with a homespun style, and he’s brought some much-needed likability to the ticket.

Born to a Catholic family, Mr. Kaine served as a missionary in Honduras, graduated from Harvard Law School and worked as a civil rights attorney before making his way into politics. He served as mayor of Richmond, then as lieutenant governor and governor of Virginia, and has served in the Senate since 2013.

Mrs. Clinton’s choice of Mr. Kaine was also seen as evidence that she was intent on trying to keep the Old Dominion, once a reliably Republican state, in Democrats’ column after President Obama carried the state twice.

Mrs. Clinton has a 7 percentage point lead in polling in Virginia.

Questions about the health of Mr. Trump, 70, and Mrs. Clinton, 68, put added pressure on the relatively young vice presidential nominees to demonstrate they’ve got the gravitas to assume the top job in an emergency.

Both men have experience in Washington and in governor’s mansions, but the debate is their first major national showdown.

The first debate between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump last week was scored a win for the Democrats and helped reverse the momentum the GOP nominee had enjoyed for most of September.

Mrs. Clinton now leads by nearly 4 percentage points in the Real Clear Politics average of national polls. She also leads Mr. Trump in Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina, while Mr. Trump is leading in Ohio.

Both Mr. Kaine and Mr. Pence have been barnstorming the battleground states, with Mr. Pence logging a lot of time recently in Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and Mr. Kaine making a number of stops in Florida and North Carolina.

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