A combative Kaine challenged Pence to defend Trump as the unflappable governor blamed Clinton for security crises.
DURHAM, N.C. — Three people were immigrants among the small crowd Tuesday gathered at Skewers bar and grill, in the heart of this political battleground state, to watch the start of the first and only vice presidential debate of the 2016 election. All three — two of Mexican origin and one Muslim — plan to vote.
And according to the campaign platform of Republican nominee Donald Trump, all three are part of a threat to American security — even though they are now U.S. citizens who came to work for better opportunity.
“I have no words,” said Ameer Mohamed, who has lived in greater Durham for nine years and was at the bar to watch the 95-minute scolding match between Democrat Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia and GOP Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana.
Trump’s broad swipes at such immigrants — from calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, to pledging to bar Muslim refugees from the U.S. — “makes me feel like a second-class citizen,” Mohamed said. “And other citizens of this country, who want to do more for this country.”
Most of the other debate-watchers in the small bar in the North Carolina college town — in one of the most highly-educated areas in the United States — were also solidly against Trump, even as Pence sought mightily to paint the real estate magnate as far more reasonable as some of his own comments would suggest. About three dozen people, nearly all with a Democratic debate-watching party, watched as an uncharacteristically combative Kaine frequently interrupted and talked loudly over Pence.
The debate was expected to be bland: The vice presidential candidates have each described themselves as boring and have paled in comparison to the outsized and polarizing personalities of ticket-toppers Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Still, Kaine and Pence sparred over substance on foreign policy, from immigration reform and confronting Russia in Syria, to nuclear proliferation and a strategy to combat terrorism.
“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,” said Pence. He also pinned the “newly emboldened — the aggression of Russia” on Clinton.
Kaine pounced on Pence’s apparent attempt to distance the Republican ticket from earlier Trump statements expressing admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“You guys love Russia!” Kaine said. He also noted kind Trump words for strongmen including North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi.
“He loves dictators,” Kaine said of Trump. “He’s got kind of a personal Mount Rushmore, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Muammar Qaddafi.”
The senator’s line sought to reinforce one of the Clinton campaign’s central arguments: that such flattery from Trump shows he does not have the experience or temperament to be commander in chief, nor to confront the very challenges Pence tried to pin on the Democrats.
Still, Kaine struggled to answer how American foreign policy is better off now than when President Barack Obama was first elected in 2008. He repeatedly harkened back to talking points that Clinton helped shore up national security at a time when Osama bin Laden was still alive, 175,000 troops were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Iran was advancing its nuclear program. None of those things are true today.
But Pence pointed to the ongoing and rising violence in Syria as a prime example of a foreign policy failure by Clinton. He said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and current Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement Tuesday that the U.S. was breaking off attempts to negotiate with Moscow over the Syrian conflict were merely the continuation of security shortfalls she helped put in motion.
Throughout the campaign, Pence has struck a markedly more measured tone than Trump. But on Tuesday, he also directly contradicted some of Trump’s foreign policy prescriptions, particularly on Russia: Pence called Putin a “small and bullying leader” and said Russian aggression “must be met by American strength.”
Both Pence and Kaine advocated more strongly than their running mates for a “safe zone,” or no-fly zone, in Syria that could be lethally tested by Russia.
But there were few zingers and even fewer surprises during the debate. And even in the battleground state, where Trump now trails Clinton by 1.2 points, the matchup failed to hold attention at Skewers for very long.
At one point, Kaine mentioned the year he spent on a Jesuit mission in Honduras. That momentarily perked up one young Mexican-American man who identified himself only as Hector and said he appreciates that the Democratic veep hopeful speaks Spanish. Still, Hector said, both Clinton and Trump — and their respective running-mates — are pandering for the Latino vote, particularly with the growing Hispanic community in North Carolina.
But Hector saved most of his ire for Trump, and was especially incensed over news reports suggesting the millionaire has not paid taxes since 1995.
“My family has paid taxes, and they’re immigrants,” he said loudly. “This guy’s American, and he can’t even pay, except to pay himself?”
He and his friend walked out after the first hour.
Credit: Joe Raedle / Staff