FARMVILLE (AFP) - Mrs Hillary Clinton and Mr Donald Trump's running mates snatched the spotlight for the White House race on Wednesday (Oct 5), facing off in their only debate of the campaign with the US elections just five weeks away.
Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence wasted no time in launching broadsides against Mr Trump and Mrs Clinton in the opening minutes of their 90-minute debate at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia.
Mr Kaine accused Republican presidential nominee Trump of breaking a promise to release his tax records, after a New York Times report gave ammunition to the Democratic case against Trump by reporting he may not have paid federal taxes for 18 years.
Mr Pence, who has a low-key style compared to Mr Trump’s signature bombast, said Mr Trump as a New York real estate developer had created thousands of jobs and had used US tax laws as they were designed to be used.
“Governor Pence had to give Donald Trump his tax returns to show he is qualified to be vice president. Donald Trump has to give his tax returns to show he is qualified to be president,” said Mr Kaine, a US senator from Virginia.
The two candidates talked over each other so much in a bid to score points that the debate moderator, CBS News’ Elaine Quijano, intervened.
“The people at home can’t understand either one of you when you speak over each other,” she said.
The debate was the only one featuring the vice presidential contenders and came as Mrs Clinton has edged ahead of Mr Trump in national opinion polls and in some Nov 8 battleground states where the election is likely to be decided.
Giving his opening statement, Mr Kaine paid tribute to Mrs Clinton as a "history-making woman" while hammering Mr Trump.
"The thought of Donald Trump as commander-in-chief scares us to death," said Mr Kaine, 58, an affable senator whose liberalism stems in part from his Catholic faith and experiences as a volunteer working in poor communities in Central America.
Mr Pence, who introduced himself as a “small-town boy” who dreamed of representing his town in Washington and thanked Mr Trump for picking him as running mate, said Mr Kaine and Mrs Clinton would know a lot about an “insult-driven” campaign.
Mr Pence, 57, is as modest and polite in style as Mr Trump is brash and insulting.
His job was to reassure Republicans at a time when Mr Trump is mired in difficulties, many of his own making.
Weighing heavily against the New York billionaire are a mediocre performance in his first debate with Mrs Clinton, followed by revelations of a US$916 million (S$1.25 billion) loss in 1995 that may have meant he paid no taxes for several years, and criticism of his demeaning treatment of a former Miss Universe, Ms Alicia Machado.
His campaign manager Kellyanne Conway promised a "fiery" Kaine-Pence debate.
"I think you'll see in Mike Pence somebody who is able to defend Donald Trump the running mate, but at the same time take the case right to Hillary Clinton," she said on CBS.
Mr Pence, who spent a dozen years in Congress, is known for his discipline. He has prepared intensively for the debate, unlike Mr Trump, who did little to practise for his Sept 26 encounter with Mrs Clinton.
"We expect them to throw a lot of mud," said Clinton campaign manager Robbie Mook, ahead of the debate in Farmville, Virginia.
"It's going to be very interesting to see how Mike Pence responds to questions about Trump's behaviour in the last week," he added, also speaking on CBS This Morning. Defending Mr Trump has become second nature for Mr Pence: He has had to put out fires on multiple occasions over the past months.
When Mr Trump became embroiled in a bitter feud with the family of a Muslim-American army captain killed in Iraq, it was Mr Pence who put out a statement hailing Humayun Khan as an "American hero".
Besides reassuring voters turned off by Mr Trump's volcanic temper, Mr Pence must attack Mrs Clinton while pushing a larger theme of change - something many Americans say they want - and laying out the Republican agenda.
Mr Trump himself framed the showdown in similar terms at a rally in Prescott Valley, Arizona, hours before the event.
"The debate will be a contrast between our campaign of big ideas and bold solutions for tomorrow, versus the small and petty Clinton campaign that is totally stuck in the past," Mr Trump said.
But Mr Trump has also warned that he will be "live tweeting the VP debate", potentially overshadowing his running mate during his moment in the sun.
Mr Kaine, who served as Virginia's governor from 2006 to 2010, appeared to have the easier task.
Since the first presidential debate, support for Mrs Clinton has risen to 44.3 per cent against 40.6 per cent for Mr Trump, according to an average of recent national polls compiled by RealClearPolitics.
Mr Kaine's role so far has been to attack Mr Trump, and he sought to force Mr Pence into owning the controversial rhetoric of his running mate.
“Donald Trump always puts himself first,” Mr Kaine said in their debate, pointing out that when Mr Trump began his presidential campaign last year he called “Mexicans rapists and criminals” and had also voiced the “outrageous lie” that Democratic President Barack Obama was not born in the United States.
Mr Pence, the governor of Indiana, shot back at Mr Kaine that he and Mrs Clinton “would know a lot about an insult-driven campaign”and then accused Clinton, the former US secretary of state, of bungling foreign policy with large sections of the Middle East“literally spinning out of control.”
But Mr Kaine too was forced into defending Mrs Clinton, for using a private e-mail server as secretary of state, as well as in other controversies that have undercut her trustworthiness among voters.
While the two men are seen as disciplined and far less blemished than Mrs Clinton and Mr Trump, vice-presidential clashes can be unpredictable, even though they rarely move the needle.
"Vice-presidential debates often can be freewheeling, with so much ground to cover," Mr Goldstein said.
Americans will have a second round of presidential debates on Sunday to look forward to. The format will be a bit different, with candidates fielding questions put to them by people in the audience.