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Biden takes off gloves in bruising debate against Ryan

Trying to make up for Obama’s lacklustre debate performance last week, Joe Biden aggressively challenged Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan in their face-off Thursday night, energising Democrats and irritating Republicans.


With polls showing President Barack Obama losing his lead after a widely panned debate performance last week, the pressure was on Vice President Joe Biden to come out swinging at his face-off against Mitt Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, Thursday night.

And come out swinging he did.

Held in Danville, Kentucky, and moderated by journalist Martha Raddatz, the debate saw a feisty Biden hitting his Republican counterpart on a variety of issues including taxes, abortion, and US policies regarding Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan.

Biden’s aggressive approach was a far cry from Obama’s passivity last week. It was also a dramatic departure from his own more restrained debate performance against Sarah Palin four years ago.

Ryan, a 42-year-old Congressman from Wisconsin known for his winning smile and staunch fiscal conservatism, was on the defensive for much of the time.

A CBS poll of uncommitted voters carried out right after the debate found 50 percent of respondents naming Biden as the winner, 31 percent choosing Ryan, and 19 percent calling it a tie.

The Republican nevertheless earned praise from pundits on both sides of the aisle for his carefully worded critiques of Obama’s domestic and foreign policy records.

“Ryan was earnest and knowledgeable, but seemed somewhat intimidated by Biden,” assessed Dr. Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

"Mathematically impossible": Biden and Ryan clash on taxes

Karlyn Bowman, an analyst at right-leaning thinktank American Enterprise Institute, described Biden as “combative and hot” and Ryan as “calm and cool”, noting that both proved “skilled debaters”.

Biden’s boldness ‘revives Democratic enthusiasm’

But Democratic analysts, like Thomas Mann of the left-leaning Brookings Institution, were nearly unanimous in asserting that Biden emerged from the encounter with his mission accomplished. “Biden did what Democrats wanted Obama to do in the first debate,” Mann said. “[His] performance will help revive Democratic interest and enthusiasm in their ticket.”

The debate opened with a series of fiery exchanges over foreign policy, with Ryan accusing Obama of “projecting weakness abroad” and Biden challenging his opponent to specify what Romney would do differently.

The back-and-forth continued in a segment focused on the economy. “This is not what a real recovery looks like,” Ryan quipped, pointing to high unemployment in Biden’s own hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania.

“Show me a policy that shows me you care about people,” Biden retorted, rapping the Republican ticket for promoting a tax code he said would favour the wealthiest Americans.

Unlike the debate between Obama and Romney, the vice president and his opponent, both of whom are Catholic, were asked to address the hot-button issue of abortion and explain the role of religion in their views on the matter.

Ryan emphasised that, in his opinion, “life begins at conception”, though he insisted that a Romney White House would not oppose abortion in cases of rape or incest. Biden, on the other hand, stressed that his Catholic faith and political positions were separate: “I refuse to impose my church’s position on others,” he said gravely. “I do not believe that we have a right to tell women that they can't control their body.”

‘Only Obama can restore Obama’

In the wake of the debate, blogs and Twitter feeds were flooded with reactions from Democrats thrilled that Biden had attacked the Republican ticket with a boldness that Obama failed to display last week; Biden brought up Romney’s controversial “47 percent” comments multiple times, and said it was hard to know where the Republican stood on any given issue since he “changes his mind so much”.

Many Republicans, meanwhile, slammed Biden for what they described as over-the-top and inappropriate antics such as eye-rolling, interrupting and scoffing during some of Ryan’s remarks. One of CNN’s right-leaning pundits, Alex Castellanos, tweeted that Biden was “irritating” and “smirking” excessively, and called for someone to “take away his laughing gas”.

“It’s pretty clear who the grown-up on stage is,” Ryan’s spokesperson tweeted.

The question looming as Biden and Ryan exited the stage was whether or not Thursday night’s clash would have any impact on what looks like an increasingly tight race. Last week, Romney proved the exception to the general rule of debates having minimal impact on the race by getting a substantial bounce out of his strong showing. Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution predicted that Biden’s robust performance Thursday night would serve to “diminish any further shift in support to Romney”.

The University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato was a bit more measured in his evaluation: “It's unclear if the debate will move the needle, but Democrats who were crestfallen after [the Denver debate] are going to feel a lot better about their ticket Friday morning,” he offered, with a qualification: “However, only Obama can restore Obama.”

The president and his Republican rival will face off in two more debates on October 16 and October 22.

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