VP debate: Democrat Kaine cites past racism towards Irish

Republican VP nominee Mike Pence avoids defending Donald Trump in TV event

Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence dig into each other during their one and only US vice presidential debate in Farmville, Virginia. Video: Reuters


US Democratic vice-presidential nominee Tim Kaine invoked past discrimination towards Irish immigrants in US as he pushed his Republican opponent Mike Pence to defend running mate Donald Trump’s inflammatory remarks about Mexican immigrants during a televised debate on Tuesday night.

The Irish-American politicians squared off in their only encounter that Mr Pence, Indiana’s governor, was deemed to have won on style if not on substance. He deflected attempts by Mr Kaine, a US senator from Virginia, to force him to defend Mr Trump’s most incendiary campaign comments.

“We’re a nation of immigrants. Mike Pence and I both are descended from immigrant families,” Mr Kaine said in a reference to their third- and fourth-generation antecedents from Ireland.

“Some things, you know, maybe weren’t said so great about the Irish when they came, but we’ve done well by absorbing immigrants, and it has made our nation stronger.”

Responding to a question about his personal faith, Mr Kaine spoke fondly of growing up “in a wonderful household with great Irish Catholic parents”.

The debate between the men was dominated by attacks on their opponents at the top of the presidential tickets in a Clinton-Trump proxy fight.

Recalling how Mr Trump called Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals and his attack on a Mexican-American judge, Mr Kaine, running mate to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, told Mr Pence: “I can’t imagine how you could defend that.”

It was a line that he repeated throughout the 90-minute debate but Mr Trump’s vice-presidential candidate refused to take the bait, despite being persistently interrupted and pressed by Mr Kaine, who came across as overly eager, belligerent and at times fidgety in prosecuting Mrs Clinton’s case.

Mr Pence shrugged off Mr Trump’s gaffes, either erroneously rejecting them as inaccurate or dismissing them as the mistakes of a political novice who instead had “extraordinary business acumen” and could rebuild the country’s military and economy and project strength in the world.

“I can’t imagine how Governor Pence can defend the insult-driven selfish ‘me first’ style of Donald Trump, ” said Mr Kaine.

Mr Pence shot back, accusing the Democratic side of running the “insult-driven campaign” and calling Mr Trump’s remarks “small potatoes” compared with one of Mrs Clinton’s campaign verbal slips.

“If Donald Trump had said all of the things that you’ve said he said in the way you said he said them, he still wouldn’t have a fraction of the insults that Hillary Clinton levelled when she said that half of our supporters were a basket of deplorables,” said the former US congressman.

Mr Kaine responded: “I’m just saying facts about your running mate.”

The combative exchange between the vice-presidential candidates grew jarring and chaotic at times as the Democrat repeatedly talked over his Republican rival.

Mr Pence, a former radio talk show host, projected a more even-keeled temperament throughout the debate as he largely avoided being drawn by Mr Kaine into defending or explaining Mr Trump’s statements and even departed from some of the businessman’s stated policy positions.

The conservative politician hinted that Mr Trump would not immediately deport illegal immigrants by force - a position the Republican nominee has stated and, more recently, vacillated on.

The former Indiana congressman said the US should be prepared to use military action against the Assad regime in Syria if the Russians continue to attack civilians in the besieged town of Aleppo and he talked tough on Vladimir Putin, while Mr Trump has repeated praised the Russian leader.

In explaining the dangerous threat from Russia, Mr Pence even offered an analogy: “The Russian bear never dies, it just hibernates.”

Refusing to let the Republican slip away from Mr Trump’s praise of Mr Putin, Mr Kaine said: “You’ve got to be tough on Russia. So let’s start with not praising Vladimir Putin as a great leader.”

“We haven’t,” said Mr Pence, contradicting his own remarks to CNN last month when he said Mr Putin had “a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country”.

Mr Trump, who live-tweeted commentary and shared positive Twitter reviews of Mr Pence’s performance throughout the debate, lavished praise on his running mate afterwards.

“Mike Pence won big,” the property developer and television celebrity wrote. “We should all be proud of Mike!”

A Democratic-leaning audience of debate watchers, polled by CNN/ORC, agreed that the Republican fared better; 48 per cent felt that Mr Pence won the debate, compared with 42 per cent for Mr Kaine, while 67 per cent found that the Indiana governor did better than expected.