Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence called Russian President Vladimir Putin a "small and bullying leader" on Tuesday and condemned his actions in Syria, taking a harder line than Donald Trump at a contentious debate with Democratic rival Tim Kaine.
Pence's denunciation of Putin for his interference in the Syrian civil war and support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was a departure from the frequent praise of Putin by Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, who has called him a better leader than U.S. 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," Pence said. "The greatest nation on earth just withdraws from talks about a ceasefire, while Vladimir Putin puts a missile defense system in Syria."
The encounter between Pence and Kaine, who is No. 2 to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, was the only such debate between the vice presidential contenders before the Nov. 8 election, and the two spent most of their time attacking each other's running mates.
For more than 90 minutes at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia, neither Pence nor Kaine appeared to deliver a knockout punch. Pence sought to project an image as a reassuring presence to the bombastic Trump, while Kaine tried to frighten voters away from Trump and make Clinton seem more trustworthy.
A CNN/ORC snap poll declared Pence the winner with 48 percent support, compared with Kaine's 42 percent.
It set the table for a second presidential debate looming on Sunday in St. Louis between Clinton and Trump, who needs to rebound from a rocky performance from his first debate, one that gave Clinton a boost in national opinion polls with Election Day only five weeks away.
Pence's comments raised eyebrows among establishment Republicans as to whether the governor of Indiana was breaking ranks with Trump on Russia. Trump himself earlier in the day condemned Russian bombing in Syria after the United States withdrew from ceasefire talks with Russia.
Conservatives who do not support Trump liked Pence'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.