NEW YORK - Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence Tuesday night faced off in the only vice-presidential debate in the run-up to the US election, clashing over national security, immigration and other issues.

 The event in Farmville, Virginia, saw Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s running mate, share the stage with Pence, Donald Trump choice for vice president,  for 90 minutes.

Kaine came off as the more aggressive of the two candidates, repeatedly interrupting Pence and challenging him to defend some of Trump’s more controversial statements. “He loves dictators,” Kaine said of Trump’s penchant for comments that seem to cast certain world leaders in a positive light. “He’s got like a personal Mount Rushmore: Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Moammar Gadhafi and Saddam Hussein.”

Pence retorted by saying the strength of a strongman like Vladimir Putin can be traced back to the “weak and feckless foreign policy of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama” which had “awaked an aggression in Russia” a few years ago.  

While the two men traded barbs back and forth about their respective candidate’s record, observers noted that Pence did not defend some of Trump’s more controversial remarks about women and minorities.

“[Pence] is asking everybody to vote for someone he cannot defend,” Kaine said.  

Both men are experienced politicians. Kaine is currently a US Senator representing Virginia, a state he once led as governor. Pence is the current governor of Indiana.

Although Pence appeared to be on the defensive throughout much of the debate, he did not spare Kaine and Clinton some attacks of his own, targeting her use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state.

“There’s a reason that people question the trustworthiness of Hillary Clinton and that’s because they’ve been paying attention,” Pence said.

With the figures of Trump and Clinton looming large in the campaign, neither Pence nor Kaine enjoy much recognition among Americans, and their debate is believed to have drawn a much smaller number of people than last week’s first presidential debate.

The discussion took a sour turn when the issue of Trump’s tax records was raised. Kaine pointed to the fact that Trump has refused to release his tax records, unlike all other US presidential nominees in modern history.

A report by The New York Times revealed that Trump had reported a $916 million loss in 1995 which may have enabled him to avoid paying federal income taxes for 18 years.”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,” Kaine said.

Pence shot back, saying that Trump, as a New York real estate developer, had created innumerable jobs, noting that the business mogul used US tax laws and did nothing illegal. Kaine also accused Trump of mistaking “leadership for dictatorship” by supporting Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“He’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader,” Trump said of Putin last month.

Kaine said that “Donald Trump, again and again, has praised Vladimir Putin, and it’s clear that he has business dealings with Russian oligarchs who are related to Putin.”Pence denied the accusations as “absolutely inaccurate,” blaming Russian military moves in Syria and Ukraine on Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state.

“The situation we’re watching hour by hour in Syria today is the result of the weak foreign policy that Hillary Clinton helped lead in this administration and create,” Pence said, pointing to “the newly emboldened aggression of Russia... in Ukraine.”

He also said, “The Clinton Foundation accepted foreign donations while she was secretary of state … She kept that pay-to-play process in.”

Kaine then drew attention to Trump’s controversial remarks about African Americans, Mexicans and President Barack Obama.

“Donald Trump always puts himself first,” he said, noting when Trump began his presidential campaign last year he called “Mexicans rapists and criminals” and propagated the “outrageous lie” that Obama had not been born in the US.

The debate comes at a time when new national polls indicate that Clinton is having a comfortable lead over Trump in the race for the White House.

According to NBC News/SurveyMonkey Weekly Election Tracking Poll released on Tuesday, Clinton holds a 6-point lead over Trump, 46 percent to 40 percent.

The next debate between Trump and Clinton is scheduled for Sunday.