Donald Trump was likened to a “fool or maniac” while Hillary Clinton was dismissed as “weak and feckless” in the vice-presidential debate in Virginia.
Democratic Virginia Senator Tim Kaine and Republican Indiana Governor Mike Pence clashed on a series of topics ranging from abortion to Russia.
But they focused their sharp exchanges on both Mrs Clinton and Mr Trump.
Mr Pence painted Mrs Clinton as a “weak and feckless” leader who failed on foreign policy as secretary of state.
Meanwhile, Mr Kaine invoked Republican President Ronald Reagan when talking about the dangers of nuclear weapons under a Trump presidency.
He said Mr Reagan had once warned that nuclear proliferation could lead to “some fool or maniac” triggering a “catastrophic event”, adding that he was referring to someone like Mr Trump.
The 57-year-old senator also criticised Mr Trump’s temperament, saying the Republican nominee “can’t start a Twitter war with Miss Universe without shooting himself in the foot”.
In one of the more heated moments, Mr Kaine sharply criticised Mr Trump’s praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin and questioned his business ties with Russian oligarchs.
Mr Trump praised dictators, said Mr Kaine, and had a “personal Mount Rushmore” made up of Mr Putin, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
“If you don’t know the difference between dictatorship and leadership, then you’ve got to go back to a fifth-grade civics class,” Mr Kaine said.
But Mr Pence contended Mr Putin would respect Mr Trump because of his strength. “Plain and simple.”
He added that “the small and bullying leader of Russia has been stronger on the world stage than this administration – that’s stating painful facts”.
That’s not an endorsement of Mr Putin, he said. “That’s an indictment of the weak and feckless leadership of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.”
Pence did what was needed – Anthony Zurcher, BBC News, Farmville
It was a scattershot debate, and at times the subjects changed so jarringly it felt like the speed round of a game show. In the end, however, Mike Pence did what he had to do.
The Republican vice-presidential nominee’s goal was to reassure Republicans panicked by Donald Trump’s debate performance last week and his bungling in the days that followed that cooler heads will prevail. He did that.
His calm, steady style – honed over years as a talk show host – stood in marked contrast to Democrat Tim Kaine’s over-caffeinated demeanour and rapid-fire attacks.
At times, of course, it seemed like Mr Pence was talking about a Donald Trump who doesn’t exist – one who doesn’t have a year-long history of inflammatory statements and controversial stands. And Mr Kaine was quick to call him on it.
Mr Pence’s accomplishment, however, was to defend his traditional conservatism and make the case to wandering Republicans – particularly educated suburban voters – that they still have a home in the party. On Tuesday night, Mr Pence stopped the bleeding.
At best, however, he has turned the page on a disastrous week and given Mr Trump an opportunity to get back in the race. It is up to him to make the most of it.
The two candidates also clashed on Mr Trump’s tax arrangements, which have come under scrutiny in recent days.
He has refused to release his tax returns, but the New York Times revealed he may have avoided paying taxes for the last 18 years.
This was possible because Mr Trump, a hotel developer, suffered huge business losses of more than $900 million in 1995. He has not denied the truth of the story.
Mr Pence defended his running mate’s practices, adding that he was “smart” to avoid paying tax.
Mr Kaine shot back: “I guess all of us who do [pay taxes]are stupid?”
In other debate highlights:
Mr Kaine listed groups of people whom Mr Trump had insulted, including women and veteran POWs
In response, Mr Pence said Donald Trump has insulted fewer Americans than Mrs Clinton
Community policing is the key to easing tensions between police and African Americans, said Mr Kaine
But Mr Pence accused Mrs Clinton of demonising police by accusing them of racism
The thought of Donald Trump as commander in chief “scares us to death”, said Mr Kaine
The Indiana governor said he and Mr Trump will cut taxes and still pay for Social Security and Medicare
The two pro-life candidates also clashed over Mr Trump suggesting women should be punished for having abortions.
Though Mr Trump later corrected himself, Mr Pence chalked it up to his inexperience: “Look, he’s not a polished politician like you and Hillary Clinton.”
The debate was hosted by CBS News’ Elaine Quijano and followed last week’s presidential debate, which drew a record 84 million viewers, according to Nielsen. – BBC