By Amanda Becker
HAVERFORD, Pa. (Reuters) - Democrat Hillary Clinton slammed Republican Donald Trump on Tuesday for making disparaging comments about women's physical appearance, accusing Trump of taking the issue of female body image "to a new level of difficulty and meanness."
Hours before vice presidential candidates Tim Kaine and Mike Pence face off in Virginia in their sole debate, Clinton urged women at an event in the Philadelphia suburbs billed as a "family town hall" to stand up to online bullying about how they look.
"It's shocking when women are called names and judged solely on the basis of physical attributes," the Democratic presidential nominee said in response to a 15-year-old girl's question about the problem of body image and the "damage Donald Trump does" when he talks about how women look.
"My opponent insulted Miss Universe," Clinton said, resurrecting her Republican rival's comments last week about former beauty queen Alicia Machado's weight gain after she won the Miss Universe contest in 1996.
"I mean, how do you get more acclaimed than that? But it wasn't good enough," Clinton said. "We can't take any of this seriously anymore. We need to laugh at it. We need to refute it."
Clinton, the first woman to be nominated for the presidency by a major U.S. party, has rushed to capitalize on Trump's public feud with Machado, whom he once called "Miss Piggy" because of her weight gain, and make inroads with women voters five weeks before the Nov. 8 election.
Clinton's and Trump's running mates, Democrat Kaine, a U.S. senator, and Republican Pence, governor of Indiana, will meet in a debate in Farmville, Virginia, starting at 9 p.m. on Tuesday (0100 GMT on Wednesday.)
The debate will provide voters their first extended chance to evaluate the No. 2's in the White House race and is the only showdown between the vice presidential candidates. Trump and Clinton will meet in their second debate on Sunday.
Pence could find himself frequently on the defensive about Trump, a New York businessman who has been dealing with a torrent of bad news in the past week.
That includes a New York Times report that Trump took an almost $1 billion loss in 1995 that may have allowed him to avoid paying federal income taxes for up to 18 years. While Democrats have slammed him over the report, Trump, who made much of his business acumen on the campaign trail, has said he "brilliantly used" U.S. tax rules to his advantage to limit his tax bills.
Clinton disagreed, telling reporters on Tuesday it showed "unequivocally" that Trump was a failure at business for losing $1 billion to begin with.
A Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll released on Tuesday said 67 percent of Americans believed it was "selfish" for a presidential candidate to pay no taxes, although 46 percent thought a candidate who paid no taxes was "smart."
Clinton also criticized Trump for appearing to suggest on Monday that veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress were not strong enough to handle the stress of war. Trump and his campaign said his words were taken out of context.
"When people come back from war and combat, and they see things that maybe a lot of folks in this room have seen many times over - and you're strong and you can handle it - but a lot of people can't handle it," Trump told a veterans group on Monday.
Clinton said troops deserved a commander in chief who understood their sacrifice.
"Donald Trump's comments are not just ignorant, they are harmful because they give voice to the stigma that has led generations of veterans to hide their struggles instead of getting lifesaving help," she said.
On the campaign trail on Tuesday, Trump met with about a dozen energy executives in Denver, querying them mainly about their concerns about regulations he said had "gotten out of control."
John Harpole, chief executive of Mercator Energy, said he did not understand why the Obama administration’s response to the shale boom and Clinton’s energy positions had not come up during the first presidential debate last week.
Others told Trump they faced more immediate concerns with state-level regulators. Scott Stewart of Gilbert-Stewart Operating said his company had largely moved operations to Kansas because of stiff rules in Colorado.
Trump also reveled in comments on Monday by Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton, who said small-business people and people who make too much to get federal subsidies to help with insurance payments were "getting killed" by the federal healthcare law known as Obamacare.
Trump has promised to repeal Obamacare, while Hillary Clinton has praised it but said she would work to improve aspects of it.
"I bet he went through hell last night, can you imagine?" Trump said of Bill Clinton during a rally in Prescott, Arizona. "He went through hell, but honestly there have been many nights when he has gone through hell with Hillary."
Clinton has led Trump in national opinion polls in recent months. On Tuesday, an average of polls aggregated by RealClearPolitics website showed her with 48.1 percent of support compared with Trump's 44.3 percent.
(Writing by John Whitesides; Additional reporting by Emily Stephenson in Colorado and Chris Kahn in New York; Editing by Frances Kerry and Peter Cooney)