FARMVILLE, VIRGINIA // US Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence called the Russian president a “small and bullying leader” and condemned his actions in Syria, taking a harder line than his running mate Donald Trump during a contentious debate with his Democratic rival Tim Kaine on Tuesday.
The denunciation of the Russian leader’s interference in the Syrian civil war and support for Syrian president Bashar Al Assad was a departure from the frequent praise of Vladimir Putin by Mr Trump, the Republican presidential nominee.
Mr Trump has called Mr Putin a better leader than US president Barack Obama and said he could work with him.
“The small and bullying leader of Russia is now dictating terms to the United States,” Mr Pence said. “The greatest nation on earth just withdraws from talks about a ceasefire, while Vladimir Putin puts a missile defence system in Syria.”
The debate would be the only one between the vice presidential contenders before the November 8 election.
For more than 90 minutes at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia, neither Mr Pence nor Mr Kaine appeared to deliver a knockout punch.
Mr Pence sought to project an image as a reassuring presence to the bombastic Mr Trump. Meanwhile, Mr Kaine tried to frighten voters away from Mr Trump and make Mrs Clinton seem more trustworthy.
A CNN/ORC snap poll declared Mr Pence the winner with 48 per cent support, compared with Mr Kaine’s 42 per cent.
Mr Pence’s comments raised eyebrows among establishment Republicans as to whether the governor of Indiana was breaking ranks with Mr Trump on Russia. Mr Trump himself earlier in the day condemned Russian bombing in Syria after the US withdrew from ceasefire talks with Russia.
Conservatives who do not support Mr Trump liked his running mate’s view.
“Pence’s foreign policy is fine. Too bad it isn’t Trump’s,” tweeted Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine.
Mr Pence said “the provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength” and that if Russia chooses to continue to be involved in “barbaric” attacks on civilians, “the United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike military targets of the Assad regime”.
His blunt comments on Russia, more in line with thinking by traditional Republicans, came in response to Mr Kaine’s charge that Mr Trump was too cozy with the Russian leader.
Mr Kaine, a senator from Virginia, said Mrs Clinton would be tough in dealing with Mr Putin.
“Donald Trump, again and again, has praised Vladimir Putin. And it’s clear that he has business dealings with Russian oligarchs who are very connected to Putin,” Mr Kaine said.
Democrats were quick to point out the discrepancy between Mr Trump and his running mate on Russia.
“All of a sudden we hear tough talk about Vladimir Putin. It’s the exact opposite of what Donald Trump has been saying,” said Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook.
The debate set the stage for a second presidential debate looming on Sunday in St Louis between Mrs Clinton and Mr Trump.