I don't love Putin, insists Trump, after fractious deputies' debate
Donald Trump has hit back at Hillary Clinton's accusation that he is cosying up to Russian president Vladimir Putin after the claim put the Republican White House hopeful's running mate on the defensive during the US vice presidential debate.
Mr Trump offered effusive praise for Mike Pence's performance, but also claimed credit for it, even as both campaigns acknowledged that the sole vice presidential debate was unlikely to alter the race's direction.
Celebrity billionaire businessman Mr Trump said his relationship with Russia's leader would be determined by how Moscow responded to strong US leadership under his administration.
"They say Donald Trump loves Putin. I don't love, I don't hate. We'll see how it works," he told a rally outside Las Vegas.
But Democrat Mrs Clinton shrugged that off, saying Mr Trump had "this weird fascination with dictators".
"My opponent seems not to know the difference between an ally and adversary," she told an evening fund-raising event in Washington. "There seems to be some misunderstanding about what it means to have a dictatorship and provide leadership."
Mr Trump sought to take away an argument that Mrs Clinton and her running mate Tim Kaine have ramped up in the final weeks of the campaign as they work to portray Mr Trump as dangerous for American interests overseas.
While US-Russia relations nosedive over failed diplomacy in Syria, Mr Trump has complimented Mr Putin, calling him a strong leader and even encouraging him to track down Mrs Clinton's missing e-mails, though he later said he was being sarcastic.
"You guys love Russia," Mr Kaine said in Tuesday's debate. "You both have said Vladimir Putin is a better leader than the president."
In a forceful rebuke, Mr Pence described Mr Putin as a "small and bullying leader", but blamed Mrs Clinton and President Barack Obama for a "weak and feckless" foreign policy that had awakened Moscow's aggression in Ukraine and meddling in the Middle East.
The US and Russia back opposing sides in Syria's civil war but both are fighting the Islamic State group there. The US cut off talks with Russia about Syria this week after the latest ceasefire collapsed, blaming Russia for failing to fulfill its commitments under the deal.
"I can say this: If we get along and Russia went out with us and knocked the hell out of Isis, that's OK with me, folks," Mr Trump said, using an acronym for the extremist group.
Since last week's debate Mr Trump has faced a barrage of questions over a leaked tax return showing he lost more than 900 million dollars (£700m) in 1995. In turn, he has sought to reframe his life story as a comeback tale he hopes to recreate on behalf of a faltering nation.
"America needs a turnaround. American needs a comeback. America needs a change. And that's why I'm running," Mr Trump said.
Taking the stage in Henderson, Nevada, Mr Trump took his own victory lap for Mr Pence's performance, which he called "phenomenal".
Mr Pence's cool demeanour contrasted with Mr Trump's bluster during his own, top-of-the-ticket showdown against Mrs Clinton. However strong MrPence's performance, Mr Trump made clear he considered it a reflection of himself.
"I'm getting a lot of credit, because that's really my first so-called choice, that was my first hire," he said of Mr Pence.
Even Mrs Clinton's team was no't claiming that Mr Kaine had come out on top. Former president Bill Clinton, for example, said his wife's running mate "did just fine".
Mr Kaine acknowledged that even his wife gave him a hard time for his constant interruptions during the debate. But he said he was effectively able to block Mr Pence from attacking Mrs Clinton.
"I've never played hockey but I think I'd be a good goalie, based on last night," he said.
The big moment for their running mates behind them, both Mrs Clinton and Mr Trump were shifting focus back to each other - and to Sunday's debate, the second of three showdowns between the nominees.
Mrs Clinton was deep in debate preparations on Wednesday at her Washington home, huddling with campaign chairman John Podesta, top policy aid Jake Sullivan and her debate advisers.
Mr Trump, meanwhile, was on the campaign trail, making several stops across Nevada. In Reno, the New Yorker appeared to lecture Nevadans on how their state was correctly pronounced and then did an exaggerated version of his preferred pronunciation of "Neh-VAH-da", though most residents of the Silver State pronounce it "Neh-VAD-uh". He then declared that "nobody says it the other way".