Sen. Tim Kaine and Gov. Mike Pence engage in a lively exchange over the merits of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

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Sen. Tim Kaine and Gov. Mike Pence repeatedly threw each other on the defensive over their running mates’ policies and character at the surprisingly fiery vice-presidential debate Tuesday night, with Pence scrambling at times to keep up with near-constant attacks on Donald Trump’s fitness for the presidency.

Kaine was far more aggressive from the start, using a question about his own qualifications to praise Hillary Clinton at length and then declare, “The thought of Donald Trump as commander in chief scares us to death.” Kaine, trained as a litigator, frequently used this tactic of turning questions about himself and Clinton into opportunities to extol his Democratic running mate and assail Trump during the 90-minute confrontation, the only vice-presidential debate of the campaign.

“I can’t imagine how Gov. Pence can defend the insult-driven, me-first style of Donald Trump,” Kaine said after noting that Trump had once described Mexicans as “rapists” and questioned President Obama’s citizenship.

Pence, more formal and mild-mannered, often looked down and shook his head slightly in the face of the attacks on Trump, while Kaine tended to interrupt and talk over Pence. But at other points the Indiana governor showed a deftness that Trump often lacked at his own debate last week.

“Senator, you and Hillary Clinton would know a lot about an insult-driven campaign,” Pence said. “The campaign of Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine has been an avalanche of insults.”

There was a striking difference in the two men’s manner. Kaine, Clinton’s usually easygoing No. 2, went on the attack from the start.

Kaine, of Virginia, often interrupted Pence and repeated a list of Trump’s characterizations of women, Latinos and African Americans. He also often injected Trump’s admiration for Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin.

Pence sought to assure voters that there is a steady hand at the helm of the Republican ticket and that Clinton’s record as the secretary of state may have made the country more unsafe.

From Trump’s proposals for cutting taxes and repealing the Affordable Care Act to “ending the war on coal,” a phrase he repeated several times, Pence tried to describe Trump’s views in ways intended to energize social conservatives, working-class white voters and other Republicans while delivering a measured performance that might appeal to undecided voters who are wary of Trump’s fiery and unpredictable temperament.

Pence also hammered Clinton over her description of Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” the Obama administration’s foreign policy, and the Clinton Foundation’s acceptance of contributions from foreign countries while she was secretary of state — all issues that are popular with Republicans, but ones that Trump failed to raise at the first presidential debate.

“There’s a reason why people question the trustworthiness of Hillary Clinton,” Pence said. “And that’s because they’re paying attention.”

Kaine aimed his political message squarely at minorities by regularly mentioning Trump’s attacks on Hispanics and immigrants, and at women by noting Trump’s recent insults against Alicia Machado, a former Miss Universe who had gained weight soon after winning the pageant. Kaine argued that Trump was incapable of expressing regret or admitting he was wrong, which he described as dubious traits for a president.

“Did Donald Trump apologize for taking after somebody in a Twitter war and making fun of her weight? Did he apologize for saying African Americans are living in hell?” Kaine said. “Did he apologize for saying President Obama was not even a citizen of the United States? You will look in vain to see Donald Trump ever taking responsibility for anybody and apologizing.”

In one of several moments where the candidates tried to appeal to their own distinct voting blocs, Pence attempted to drive a wedge between the Democrats’ African-American base and up-for-grabs white voters, targeting Clinton for what he said was her practice of “bad-mouthing cops.”

“Enough of this seeking every opportunity to demean law enforcement broadly,” Pence said.

Kaine argued that there is “implicit bias” in policing, a phrase Clinton has echoed from the Black Lives Matter movement.

“If you’re afraid to bring up the issue you’ll never solve it,” he said.

Pence sought to deflect questions about Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns by noting how many jobs the hotel developer had created, and he defended Trump’s use of the tax code to claim a $916 million loss that may have helped him avoid paying federal income taxes for nearly 20 years.

“Donald Trump is a businessman, not a career politician,” Pence said. “Those tax returns showed that he faced some pretty tough times.”

“But why won’t he release his tax returns?” Kaine interjected. He repeatedly broke in when Pence made claims about Trump’s undisclosed tax returns, demanding: “How do you know?”

And Kaine pointedly observed that his counterpart had shared his own taxes with Trump.

“Gov. Pence had to give Donald Trump his tax returns to show he was qualified to be vice president,” Kaine said. “Donald Trump must give the American people his tax returns to show he’s qualified to be president.”

After repeated questions, Pence eventually said, “He’s going to release his tax returns when the audit is over,” citing Trump’s long-standing rationale for not disclosing the information.

The moderator, Elaine Quijano of CBS News, lost control of the debate at several points as Kaine trampled on Pence’s two-minute answers and the governor grappled with taking control of the exchanges. For her part, Quijano kept her questions focused on policy and asked far more questions about foreign policy than came up at the first presidential debate.

Any influence that Pence and Kaine may have on the race is limited by two factors. They remain unknown among many voters: Roughly one-third say that they have no opinion or have never heard of the two men, according to polls. And, more broadly, the 2016 race is shaped almost entirely by views of the two polarizing household names atop the tickets.

Kaine used a discussion of foreign policy to unleash a torrent of attacks on Trump for his breezy comments on nuclear weapons and his praise for a series of authoritarian strongmen.

“He loves dictators, he’s got kind of a personal Mt. Rushmore,” said the senator, citing Putin of Russia, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi, the late dictators of Iraq and Libya.

Pence sidestepped Kaine’s criticism, instead mocking his rival for lobbing a rehearsed attack. “Did you work on that one a long time?” Pence deadpanned.

“Let’s see if you can defend any of it,” Kaine shot back. Pence made no attempt to do so, instead using his response to target Clinton for the rise of the Islamic State group.

“America is less safe than the day Barack Obama became president of the United States,” the governor said.