During the first vice presidential debate in Virginia on Tuesday, Tim Kaine and Mike Pence spent nearly as much time talking about Russian leader Vladimir Putin as their own running mates.
Pence took the first swing, perhaps trying to counteract previous statements by himself and Trump comparing Putin's leadership favorably to U.S. President Barack Obama's: "The small and bullying leader of Russia is now dictating terms to the United States," Pence said, criticizing the U.S. failure to stop Russian bombing of civilians in Aleppo, Syria.
"You guys love Russia!" Kaine gleefully responded, pointing out that Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort was replaced for his undisclosed ties to the Russian government.
The candidates appeared to seek out opportunities to bring it back to Russia and one-up each other on how tough their running mate would be on its strongman leader.
Pence criticized the Obama administration "reset" with Russia, which led to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, and now Russia dictating terms in Syria. He went so far as to suggest the U.S. should explore military options in Syria that could bring it in direct conflict with Russia.
Kaine battled back by pointing out that both Trump and Pence have praised Putin in the past. "You've got to be tough on Russia," Kaine said. "So let's start with not praising Vladimir Putin as a great leader."
Pence repeatedly denied that accusation, but both he and Trump had indeed made that claim in separate nationally televised interviews. This is easily settled by looking at the tape. On CNN last month, Pence said, "I think it's inarguable that Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country, and that's going to change the day that Donald Trump becomes president of the United States of America."
Trump also told NBC's Matt Lauer last month that Putin "has been a leader far more than our president has been."
Pence said any comments about Putin's leadership were meant as a comment on the fact that he has been stronger on the world stage than Obama.
Toward the end of the evening, Kaine attempted to land a final blow. "If you mistake leadership for dictatorship and you can't tell the difference ... you shouldn't be commander in chief," he said.