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.