HENDERSON, Nev. (AP) — Donald Trump pushed back Wednesday on Hillary Clinton's accusation that he's cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin after the charge put Trump's running mate on the defensive during the vice presidential debate.
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 trajectory.
The celebrity businessman 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 shrugged that off, saying 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 fund raiser 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 and even encouraging him to track down Clinton's missing e-mails, though Trump later said he was being sarcastic.
"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 Barack 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, 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," Trump said, using an acronym for the extremist group.
Since last week's debate, Trump has faced a barrage of questions over a leaked tax return showing he lost more than $900 million in 1995. In turn, he's 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," Trump said.
Taking the stage in Henderson, Nevada, Trump took his own victory lap for Pence's performance, which he called "phenomenal. Pence's cool demeanor contrasted with Trump's bluster during his own, top-of-the-ticket showdown against Clinton. However strong Pence's performance, Trump made clear he considers 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," Trump said of Pence.
Even Clinton's team wasn't claiming that Kaine had come out on top. Former President Bill Clinton, for example, his wife's running mate "did just fine."
Kaine acknowledged that even his wife gave him a hard time for his constant interruptions during the debate. But Kaine said he was effectively able to block Pence from attacking 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 Clinton and Trump were shifting focus back to each other — and to Sunday's debate, the second of three showdowns between the nominees.
Clinton was deep in debate prep Wednesday at her Washington home. She was huddling with campaign chairman John Podesta, top policy aid Jake Sullivan and her debate advisers.
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 is 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."
Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said, despite Trump's travels, the candidate was preparing "constantly" for the debate. Trump planned his own town hall in New Hampshire on Thursday, in an apparent dress rehearsal for the big event.