Vice-Presidential Nominees Square Off Over Criminal Justice, Syria Policy

Campaign 2016 VP Debate vice-presidential nominee Gov. Mike Pence and Sen. Tim Kaine debate

Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence and Democratic candidate Tim Kaine spent Tuesday night attacking the policy proposals of each other's campaigns as well as the records of their running mates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Pence and Kaine squared off in their only debate before next month's election, interrupting each other often as they discussed nuclear weapons, the situation in Syria, and criminal justice reform at home.

Pence cast Clinton as "the architect" of President Barack Obama's foreign policy that he said has left the Middle East "spinning out of control." He blamed Clinton for allowing the rise of the Islamic State group and what he called a "newly emboldened Russia."

Meanwhile, Kaine said Trump puts himself first, and accused Trump of having business connections with Russia that he "refuses to disclose."

Both candidates agreed on the need to do something to protect civilians in northern Syria. Pence said that effort should include a no-fly zone and that if Russia is involved in continued attacks on the city of Aleppo then U.S. forces should strike Syrian military targets in response.

They also agreed on the need for community policing, but not on other criminal justice reforms.

Pence advocated stop-and-frisk policing tactics and said Americans should not "assume the worst" of police when someone is killed by an officer, while Kaine praised Clinton's proposals for gun control and mental health reforms.

Kaine demanded that Republican nominee Trump release his tax returns, which many Democrats believe will show he has paid little if any federal income taxes for years. Pence defended his billionaire running-mate as a smart businessman who has created thousands of jobs.

Democratic vice-presidential nominee Sen. Tim Kaine gestures during the debate
Democratic vice-presidential nominee Sen. Tim Kaine gestures during the debate

Clamoring to be heard

CBS News journalist Elaine Quijano, who moderated the debate at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia, rebuked both men at times for talking over each other - so much so that audience members could not hear their remarks.

Kaine said Trump's proposed tax cuts would benefit wealthy Americans at the cost of driving the U.S. economy back into recession. Pence countered by charging that Clinton's economic plans would do even more damage, by sharply increasing taxes and removing limits on government spending.

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Kaine and Pence also spoke over each other during another segment on cybercrime, in which Pence brought up Clinton's use of a private email server while serving as secretary of state.

The moderator tried to cut off Pence after a 30-second time limit, but the exchange devolved into Kaine and Pence trading accusations about the email server and Quijano trying to move on to a question about Syria.

Pence said stronger American leadership would prevent incidents such as the civil war in Syria. He also called for military strikes on Syria if Russia does not back down.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence responds to Sen. Tim Kaine.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence responds to Sen. Tim Kaine.

Arguing over who said what

During a segment in which Kaine criticized Trump for leveling insults against women, minorities and others. Pence responded by saying Clinton had insulted more Americans -- when she referred to some Trump supporters as a "basket of deplorables" -- than Trump has.

Regarding the threat posed by the militant group Islamic State (IS), Kaine said Clinton's tenure as secretary of state makes her a more viable candidate in eliminating the group. He also criticized Trump, who once said he "knows more about ISIS than the generals" and has called NATO "obsolete" and has called into question other international alliances.

Pence responded that Trump had never called the alliance obsolete, then said the former secretary of state is responsible for "creating a vacuum" that allowed IS to strengthen.

On the topic of recent missile launches by North Korea, Kaine brought up that Trump has previously said more countries should be allowed to have nuclear weapons. Pence, while not mentioning Trump, answered that "more nuclear weapons would make us safer.

The candidates argued through much of the debate, talking over each other and veering off topic to criticize the presidential candidates.

Both tout experience

As the two-hour debate opened, Kaine was the first to speak. Asked to explain why he would be able to step right into the job of running the country, if necessary. He listed his political experience at all levels of government - as a city councilman, a mayor, a lieutenant governor and a U.S. senator.

He praised Clinton, saying she has a passion to serve others, while Trump looks after his own interests first of all.

Pence said he also has a lifetime of useful political experience, from growing up as a "small-town boy" in Indiana, to representing the state in Congress and then winning election as governor.

He came to Trump's defense by accusing Clinton and Kaine of waging an "insult-driven" campaign.

Beyond the issues the two candidates quarreled over Tuesday, the greater significance of the debate lay in how much the aspiring vice presidents could boost support for Trump or Clinton.

Kaine was attempting to extend and broaden a rise in national public-opinion polls the Democratic ticket has enjoyed since Clinton's strong performance last week. Pence, meanwhile, was attempting to maintain the Republicans' strength in key "battleground" states after Trump's erratic performance versus Clinton.

The first Clinton-Trump showdown drew a record television audience for a presidential debate, more than 80 million people tuned in. Far fewer viewers and listeners were expected for the Kaine-Pence debate.

An earlier vice-presidential debate, between Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Sarah Palin in 2008, drew the largest audience of any meeting between the two major parties' No. 2 candidates -nearly 70 million viewers.

Pence has been busy on the campaign trail, but is often overshadowed by Trump. The Indiana governor regularly is asked to defend some of Trump’s claims and controversial statements, but he also tries to project a campaign image of his own, as he did during a recent rally in Mesa, Arizona.

“I promise you that the Trump-Pence team is going to work our hearts out every day of the week until we revive 'the American dream' for every American, regardless of race or creed or color or gender. We are going to bring the American dream back to life.”

Kain campaigns in the shadow of Hillary Clinton. He often appears in states where the Democrats’ chances of winning are marginal, since he is seen as a less polarizing and moderate politician. He rallied supporters recently with a bipartisan pitch in Texas, solid Republican territory.

“Let’s just treat each other as equals,” he said, “and that is the kind of person Hillary is, and that is the kind of person I am, and that is the kind of person all of you are. That unifies us.”

The vice presidential debate is sandwiched between the first Clinton-Trump faceoff on September 27 and the second presidential debate, scheduled for Sunday in St. Louis.

Jim Malone contributed to this report.