While last week’s presidential debate failed to even mention a topic that has been at the forefront of this year’s election season, the issue of immigration took center stage early on Tuesday night during the vice presidential debate in Virginia.

In what was one of many heated arguments between the VP nominees, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence defended running mate Donald Trump's proposal to deport millions of people here illegally and slammed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for supporting what Pence calls "amnesty."

Pence said Trump would focus first on border security, remove "criminal aliens" and then "enforce the law" for people who overstayed their visas.

“Donald Trump has laid out a series of priorities that don’t end with border security, they begin with it,” Pence said. “There are horrors and tragedies that have struck American families because of people who have come to this country illegally.”

Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine responded that he and Clinton supported comprehensive immigration reform and Pence and Trump are for a "deportation nation."

“Hillary Clinton and I believe in immigration reform. Donald Trump believes in a deportation nation,” he said. “These guys want to go house to house, school to school, business to business and kick out 16 million people.”

Pence, who largely offered a softer rhetoric on immigration than Trump often does, promised Trump’s administration would enforce the nation's immigration laws. He did not repeat Trump's plan to implement a "deportation force" to remove immigrants in the country illegally, however.

Kaine countered that Pence is "trying to fuzz up what Donald Trump said” and added that Trump said immigrants "will all be gone."

Immigration wasn’t the first – or the last - topic that brought heated debate between the two vice presidential nominees.

Kaine, Clinton's usually easygoing No. 2, went on the attack from the start, repeatedly interrupting Pence, an equally genial politician who continued on with mostly measured responses.

Kaine pressured Pence to answer for some of his running mate's often controversial statements, using Trump's own words including some of the Republican's comments about women. He also challenged Pence on Trump's decision to break with decades of campaign tradition by not releasing his taxes.

"Donald Trump must give the American public his tax returns to show he's prepared to be president, and he's breaking his promise," Kaine said.

Seeking to draw a contrast with Clinton and Kaine, Pence said Trump was "a businessman, not a career politician." He panned the Democrats for offering frustrated Americans "more of the same." He also leapt on former President Bill Clinton's criticism this week of "Obamacare," saying Trump would repeal the measure but not specifying what he would replace it with.

Kaine, too, defended his running mate's weaknesses, chiefly the public's questions about her honesty and trustworthiness. He said that while Trump was "selfish," Clinton had devoted her career to helping children and families.

Kaine and Pence are far less familiar to most Americans than their running mates, who are among the most well-known figures in the country. Both vice presidential candidates have spent years in politics, are well-liked by colleagues and are deeply religious.

Tuesday's debate came as a close White House race appears to be tipping in Clinton's favor following her strong showing in the first presidential debate. After an uneven debate performance, Trump bewilderingly spent the rest of the week defending comments he'd made 20 years earlier about a beauty queen's weight.

While Trump has five weeks until Election Day to regain his footing, early voting is already underway in some states.

The vice presidential showdown at Virginia's Longwood University was moderated by Elaine Quijano of CBS News. While last week's first presidential debate was watched by a record-setting television audience of 84 million people, Tuesday's contest was expected to have smaller viewership given Pence and Kaine's lower profiles in the campaign.

The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.

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