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Tim Kaine (left) and Mike Pence (right) face off in their vice presidential debate at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia, Oct. 4, 2016.

CREDIT: (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Number 2's Get Their Turn

The vice presidential candidates faced off in their only debate, doing their best to help—and not harm—the top of their tickets

Republican Mike Pence and Democrat Tim Kaine scrambled to defend the policies of their running mates on Tuesday in the only scheduled debate for the vice presidential candidates, at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia.

Pence—the governor of Indiana and running mate to Donald Trump—and Kaine—a U.S. senator from Virginia and running mate to Hillary Clinton—traded barbs over Trump’s campaign rhetoric and failure to release his taxes and Clinton’s record as a politician and handling of foreign policy as secretary of state.

The vice presidential candidates may be under more pressure than usual to convince voters of their fitness for office. Clinton’s recent bout of pneumonia, which put the health of the presidential nominees in the headlines, and Trump’s lack of experience in government, both have voters taking a close look at their vice presidential picks. Vice presidents are first in the line of succession if a president dies or is unable to continue to serve in office.

Neither candidate made significant errors during the 90-minute debate, meeting the baseline test of not doing any harm to the top of the ticket. Of the two, Kaine—who has been known to be a mellow debater— appeared to depart from his usual style, a sign that the Clinton campaign wanted him to attack their opponents hard.

Kaine repeatedly pushed Pence to answer for some of Trump’s more provocative comments and contentious proposals.

“I can’t imagine how Governor Pence can defend the insult-driven, selfish, me-first style of Donald Trump,” Kaine said after noting that Trump had once described undocumented Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and had questioned President Obama’s citizenship.

Kaine also compared Clinton’s long career in government and her history of “focusing on serving others” with Trump’s career as a high-profile real estate developer. “That’s a sharp contrast,” Kaine said. “Donald Trump always puts himself first. He built a business career, in the words of one of his own campaign staffers, ‘off the backs of the little guy.’ ”

But Pence put Kaine on the defensive by portraying Clinton as a career politician and Trump as a successful businessman and an outsider who would work to create jobs. “The truth of the matter is, the policies of this administration, which Hillary Clinton and Senator Kaine want to continue, have run this economy into a ditch,” Pence said.

And Pence criticized what he said was Clinton’s failed record as secretary of state. Calling her “the architect of the Obama administration's foreign policy,” Pence said,  “we see entire portions of the world, particularly the wider Middle East, literally spinning out of control. I mean, the situation we're watching hour by hour in Syria today is the result of the failed foreign policy and the weak foreign policy that Hillary Clinton helped lead in this administration and create.”

Most Qualified Veep?

As expected, Kaine and Pence sparred over Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns. Presidential candidates have routinely released them for decades.

“Governor Pence had to give Donald Trump his tax returns to show he was qualified to be vice president,” Kaine said. “Donald Trump must give the American public his tax returns to show that he's qualified to be president.”

Pence sought to turn the tax debate against Clinton.

“They're going to raise your taxes. We're going to cut your taxes,” he said.

In the rare moments when they were not criticizing the opposing presidential nominees, both men portrayed themselves as having the experience necessary to serve as vice president.

Kaine said that when Clinton asked him to be her running mate, “she said to me, you've been a missionary and a civil rights lawyer. You've been a city councilman and mayor. You've been a lieutenant governor and governor and now a U.S. senator. I think you will help me figure out how to govern this nation so that we always keep in mind that the success of the administration is the difference we make in people's lives.”

Pence talked about the responsibility of being next in line to the presidency.

“I would hope that if . . . the responsibility ever fell to me in this role, that I would meet it with the way that I'm going to meet the responsibility should I be elected vice president of the United States. And that's to bring a lifetime of experience, a lifetime growing up in a small town, a lifetime where I've served in the Congress of the United States . . . where I've led a state that works in the great state of Indiana. . . . I would hope and, frankly, I would pray to be able to meet that moment with that . . .  lifetime of experience.”

At the end of the night, many commentators gave the edge to Pence, saying he successfully played defense, ultimately appearing more stately in the face of Kaine’s attacks.

“My Take: VP Debate goes to Pence. He showed less can sometimes be more. Kaine looked over-caffeinated. Pence looked calm and reassuring,” concluded Edward Mejia Davis, a senior producer for CNN.

“Kaine did a better job defending Clinton than Pence did defending Trump. But on stylistic points, Pence probably won,” Matt Viser, deputy Washington bureau chief for The Boston Globe, tweeted.

The next debate, on Sunday, will feature Trump and Clinton in a town hall-style format, where voters will be able to ask questions. The final presidential debate will be on October 19.

With reporting by Jonathan Martin, Patrick Healy, and Alan Rappeport of The New York Times.

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