Sharp barbs but no clear winner in testy Biden-Ryan vice presidential debate

Vice President Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) traded furious blows Thursday night in a highly contentious vice presidential debate.

There was no clear winner in the first and only showdown between the vice presidential candidates, with both sides making strong cases for the running mate at the top of their respective ticket. But perhaps the most prominent feature of the debate in Danville, Ky., was Biden’s incredulous demeanor. The vice president repeatedly dismissed Ryan with laughter, eye-rolling and even an “Oh, god!” in an evening of quips and comebacks.

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From the outset of the 90-minute debate, Biden sought to portray Mitt Romney and Ryan’s ideas as “malarkey” and depicted his opponent as evasive and untruthful, a theme the Obama campaign has pushed aggressively in recent days.

"With all due respect, that's a bunch of malarkey," Biden said. "Not a single thing he said is accurate."

Biden, clearly looking to rebound from President Obama's sluggish and subdued performance in last week's presidential debate, presented a sharp contrast in demeanor and tone from his opponent as they debated topics ranging from Libya to the economy and abortion. The vice president frequently laughed and interrupted his rival as Ryan lobbed criticisms, appearing both confident and dismissive of the Republican nominee.

The Wisconsin congressman battled back with varied success, landing some counterpunches and living up to the earnest and wonky image he has carefully cultivated during his time in Congress. But at other points, Ryan seemed frustrated by Biden's frequent interruptions.

"I know you're under a lot of duress to make up for lost ground, but people would be better served if we don't keep interrupting each other," Ryan said during a discussion of Medicare.

Biden ran a risk with voters, appearing at times condescending and overly aggressive. His dismissive tone drew fire from many Republicans, who suggested the vice president was being rude to his opponent.

“It’s pretty clear who the grown-up onstage is,” Brendan Buck, Ryan’s spokesman, wrote on Twitter halfway through the debate. “Biden bordering on unhinged,” Tim Miller, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, wrote.

But Biden’s aggressive stance pleased some Democrats who felt the Obama campaign couldn’t afford to lose this debate.

Democratic strategist Paul Begala tweeted, “34 minutes into the VP debate, this is the debate Dems needed. God Bless Joe Biden."

Obama himself was pleased with his running mate, saying he "could not be prouder" of Biden as Air Force One landed at Andrews Air Force base in Maryland after the president's trip to Florida.

"I'm going to make a special point of saying that I thought Joe Biden was terrific tonight," Obama said. "I could not be prouder of him. I thought he made a very strong case. I really think that his passion for making sure that the economy grows for the middle class came through. So I'm very proud of him."

He called Biden to congratulate him, according to a White House pool report. Romney also called Ryan to congratulate his running mate.

The tone of the evening was set from the opening question, an inquiry into the recent attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Ryan argued the Obama administration had dropped the ball there, providing inadequate security for the foreign service officers who lost their lives.

"Our ambassador in Paris has a Marine detachment guarding him," Ryan said. "Shouldn't we have a Marine detachment guarding our ambassador in Benghazi, a place we knew there was an al Qaeda cell with arms?"

Biden fired back, saying the congressman's characterization of the administration's response to a terrorist attack was "malarkey" and that "nothing he said was accurate."

The vice president went on to cite congressional Republicans' vote to cut embassy security budgets.

"This lecture on embassy security — the congressman here cut embassy security in his budget by $300 million below what we asked for ... So much for the embassy security piece."

As the debate transitioned to the deficit and debt, it stayed personal, with Ryan pointing out that the unemployment rate in Biden's hometown of Scranton, Pa., had increased under the Obama administration.

Biden shot back by bringing up the "47 percent" comment that Romney made at a private fundraiser, saying the Republican nominee believed half of Americans were "unwilling to take responsibility of their lives."

Ryan responded by pointing out Biden's Achilles' heel: gaffes.

"I think the VP very well knows the words sometimes don't come out of your mouth the right way," Ryan said.

"But I always say what I mean," Biden retorted.

In fact, the famously gaffe-prone vice president was mistake-free during the 90-minute debate.

Later, Biden was able to put Ryan on his heels by highlighting the fact that the congressman had requested stimulus dollars for his home district despite criticizing the spending.

"I love that," Biden said. "This is such a bad program and he writes me a letter saying, 'The reason we need this stimulus, it will create growth and jobs.' His words."

But Ryan seemed to pick up momentum later in the debate as it turned to economic questions. Clearly prepared for a tangle on Medicare, Ryan said Republicans would "honor the promises" to seniors on Medicare.

"We would rather have 50 million future seniors determine how their Medicare is delivered to them, instead of 15 bureaucrats deciding what, when, if and where they get it," Ryan said.

Biden struck back, equating Ryan's argument to the "death panel" claims made by former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

The conversation was dotted with folksy colloquialisms as Biden sought the upper hand, frequently referring to Ryan as "my friend" and joking that if voters believed that Romney truly supported the auto bailout, "I've got a bridge to sell you."

The debate again got feisty as the candidates engaged on their tax plans, with the two men frequently shouting over one another while discussing who would be most affected by allowing the Bush-era tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans to expire.

"Jack Kennedy lowered tax rates and increased growth," Ryan said, arguing for the Romney tax plan.

"Now you're Jack Kennedy?" Biden asked incredulously. "This is amazing."

"Republicans and Democrats have worked together on this," Ryan said. "I understand you guys aren't used to bipartisan deals."

As the debate moved back to foreign policy, Ryan accused Biden of empowering the Syrian government's violent response to rebels by negotiating through the United Nations.

"Where are we?" Ryan asked. "After international pressure, then President Obama said [Syrian President] Bashar Assad should go. It's been over a year. He has slaughtered tens of thousands of his own people."

Biden countered, asking, "What would my friend do differently?

"You notice he never answers the question," the vice president said.

Toward the conclusion of the debate, the candidates were pressed on their stances on abortion. Both Roman Catholics, Ryan and Biden differed on how their faith and public policy should be interwoven.

"I don't see how a person can separate their public life from their private life. My faith informs me how to take care of the vulnerable, how to make sure that people have a chance in life," Ryan said.

Biden said he accepted his church's position on abortion "as what we call a de fide doctrine."

"I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews and I just refuse to impose that on others," Biden said. "Unlike my friend here, the congressman, I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people, women, they can't control their body."

In the debate's concluding moments, the candidates were asked to comment on the tenor of the presidential contest so far — an apt question, considering the night's testy proceedings. Debate moderator Martha Raddatz, who was noticeably more firm in shaping the debate than moderator Jim Lehrer a week ago in Denver with the presidential candidates, asked the question in the context of a soldier who had expressed dismay over the political atmosphere.

Biden pivoted into a discussion of the "sacred obligation" of the government to honor the soldier's service — and hit Ryan again on his running mate's "47 percent" comment.

"He shouldn't be thrown into a category of 47 percent who don't pay their taxes while he was out there fighting," Biden said.

Ryan similarly turned the question into an attack on his opponent, arguing that "we're not getting leadership" under Obama.

"What do we have from the president?" Ryan asked. "He broke his big promise to bring people together to solve the country's biggest problem. I would tell him we don't have to settle for this; we can do better than this."