HENDERSON, Nev. — Donald Trump pushed back Wednesday on Hillary Clinton’s accusation that he’s cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin after Mike Pence found himself on the defensive over the issue in the vice presidential debate against Tim Kaine.

Trump offered effusive praise for his running mate but also claimed credit for Pence’s strong performance even as both campaigns acknowledged that the sole vice presidential debate was unlikely to alter the race’s trajectory.

Picking up where Pence left off, he said his relationship with Russia’s leader would be determined by how Moscow responds to strong U.S. leadership under a Trump administration.

“They say Donald Trump loves Putin. I don’t love, I don’t hate. We’ll see how it works,” Trump told a rally outside Las Vegas.

Clinton on Wednesday said Trump has “this weird fascination with dictators.”

“My opponent seems not to know the difference between an ally and adversary,” Clinton said at an evening fundraiser in Washington. “There seems to be some misunderstanding about what it means to have a dictatorship and provide leadership.”

The billionaire candidate sought to take away an argument that Clinton and her running mate, Tim Kaine, have ramped up in the final weeks of the campaign as they work to portray Trump as dangerous for American interests overseas. While U.S.-Russia relations nosedive over failed diplomacy in Syria, Trump has complimented Putin, calling him a strong leader.

“You guys love Russia,” Kaine said in Tuesday’s debate. “You both have said Vladimir Putin is a better leader than the president.”

In a forceful rebuke, Pence described Putin as a “small and bullying leader,” but blamed Clinton and President Obama for a “weak and feckless” foreign policy that had awakened Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine and meddling in the Middle East.

The U.S. and Russia back opposing sides in Syria’s civil war but both are fighting the Islamic State group there. The U.S. cut off talks with Russia about Syria this week after the latest cease-fire collapsed.

“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,” Trump said.

The big moment for their running mates behind them, Clinton and Trump were shifting focus back to each other – and to Sunday’s debate, the second of three showdowns.

Clinton was deep in debate prep Wednesday at her Washington home. Trump planned his own town hall in New Hampshire on Thursday, in an apparent dress rehearsal.


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