US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has backed off from praising Vladimir Putin, saying he was unsure of his relationship with the Russian president, whom he has described as a better leader than President Barack Obama.
On Wednesday, just one day after his running mate Mike Pence appeared to break ranks during a vice presidential debate and called Putin “a small and bullying leader”, Trump adjusted his own previously warm rhetoric towards the Russian leader.
“I don’t love [Putin], I don’t hate. We’ll see how it works. We’ll see,” Trump told supporters during a campaign stop in the swing state of Nevada. “Maybe we’ll have a good relationship. Maybe we’ll have a horrible relationship. Maybe we’ll have a relationship right in the middle.”
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has appealed to anti-Russian sentiments in the US by criticising Trump, who often praises Putin, as being too cosy with the Kremlin leader and questioned the Republican’s business interests in Russia.
Those charges were repeated by her vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine during a debate with Pence on Tuesday.
In response, Pence denounced Putin for his interference in Syria’s civil war and support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“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 defence system in Syria.”
The vice presidential encounter set the table for a second presidential debate on Sunday in St Louis between Clinton and Trump, who needs to rebound from a rocky performance in his first debate. Clinton received a large boost in most national opinion polls after that encounter, with the November 8 election day only five weeks away.
In Nevada, Trump suggested Russia could be a valuable ally in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
“I will say if we get along with Russia and Russia went out with us and knocked the hell out of ISIS, that’s OK with me, folks,” he said.
Trump celebrated a strong debate performance by Pence, the governor of Indiana, and said his running mate had won on style and on the issues.
“He’s getting tremendous reviews from me and everybody,” Trump told a group of pastors and leaders gathered at a Christian academy in Las Vegas.
A CNN/ORC snap poll declared Pence the winner with 48 percent support, compared with 42 percent for Clinton’s running mate Tim Kaine, who frequently interrupted his opponent.
The television audience for the debate was 35.6 million viewers, according to preliminary data, about half the number who watched the first encounter between Trump and Clinton.