DANVILLE, Ky. -- Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan pummeled one another over Medicare, the federal budget and foreign policy Thursday night in their sole vice presidential debate, less than a month before an election in which voting had already begun in key states.
Mr. Biden was the aggressor from the outset, challenging his opponent's assertions, interrupting him, and frequently smiling and laughing with incredulity throughout Mr. Ryan's answers. At one point, Mitt Romney's running mate felt compelled to tell the vice president to allow him to finish his answers, but Mr. Biden was undeterred.
Martha Raddatz of ABC News, the moderator of the debate at Centre College, asked Mr. Biden to discuss the administration's sometimes conflicting explanations of the attack in Libya a month ago that led to the deaths of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador. The vice president acknowledged the confusion surrounding a terrorist attack first blamed on reaction to an anti-Muslim video.
"Whatever the facts are, we will make clear to the American people, because whatever mistakes were made will not be made again," he said, before a quick pivot to a series of criticisms of Mr. Romney's position on Iraq, Afghanistan and other foreign policy issues.
"[President Barack Obama] has led with a steady and clear vision, Gov. Romney the opposite," he said. "The last thing we need now is another war."
Mr. Ryan said the Benghazi attack was "part of a larger problem," contending that it was evidence of a broad credibility problem he blamed on the Obama administration.
"What we are watching on our TV screens is the unraveling of the Obama foreign policy," he said. "[Mr. Obama's policy] is making the world more chaotic and less safe."
Mr. Ryan sharply criticized the Obama-Biden approach to Iran, contending that its sanctions had been ineffective in keeping Tehran from a march toward nuclear capability.
"They're moving faster toward a nuclear weapon. It's because the administration has no credibility on this issue," Mr. Ryan said.
Mr. Biden dismissed the attack as "all this bluster,'' and insisted that his opponents had not suggested any specifics on what they would do differently.
"All this loose talk, what are they talking about," he said. " ... unless he's talking about going to war.''
At another point, Mr. Biden dismissed a Ryan answer as "a lot of malarkey."
Responding to Mr. Ryan's questioning of the administration's cooperation with Israel on Iran, the vice president said, "This is a bunch of stuff."
"What does that mean -- 'a bunch of stuff?' " Ms. Raddatz asked.
"It's Irish," Mr. Ryan quipped.
The two candidates also clashed sharply on the future of Medicare, federal spending and taxes. Mr. Biden derided Mr. Ryan's budget proposals, including their consequences for Medicare. It was an inevitable topic that the Obama campaign had regarded as a gift ever since Mr. Romney chose the Wisconsin representative as his political partner this summer.
In the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans scored points in race after race with their assault on the fact that the Affordable Health Care Act diverts $716 million from the anticipated growth of Medicare spending over the next 10 years. The bulk of that sum represents savings from otherwise anticipated payments to health care providers.
Mr. Ryan repeated that criticism Thursday night, as he resisted Mr. Biden's repeated efforts to cast him and his ticket as an threat to Medicare benefits.
Mr. Ryan defended his advocacy of a shift to a premium support, or voucher system, for future recipients, now 55 or older. Under that concept, private plans would exist alongside a traditional Medicare option. Mr. Biden insisted that would short-change the middle class. Mr. Ryan countered that Medicare costs are already on a path to breaking the budget and without significant reforms will not be there for younger citizens in any case.
"Medicare and Social Security are going bankrupt; these are indisputable facts," Mr. Ryan said. The Republican, known for his fondness for policy details, tried to put a human face on the need to shore up the programs, pointing out that he and his family had relied on them after his father died young.
"She paid all her taxes on the promise that these programs would be there for her," he said, referring to his mother. "The best way to do it is to reform it for my generation."
Mr. Biden took several opportunities to remind the debate audience of Mr. Romney's since-recanted statement in a video that 47 percent of Americans would never vote for him because they are content to be dependent on government.
"These people are my mom and dad, the people I grew up with, my neighbors," he said.
"With respect to that quote," Mr. Ryan said, "I think the vice president very well knows that sometimes the words don't come out of your mouth the right way."
"But I always say what I mean, and so does Romney," Mr. Biden shot back.
This was Mr. Biden's second vice presidential debate. Both attracted outsize attention but for very different reasons. Four years ago, he was generally credited with winning the debate, but the evening's star attraction and the reason for its record ratings was his opponent, Sarah Palin, Sen. John McCain's charismatic and controversial running mate.
Thursday night's encounter brought a heightened focus in the aftermath of Mr. Romney's poll-moving performance against a subdued Mr. Obama in their initial face-off in Denver. In an ABC television interview Wednesday, Mr. Obama seconded the consensus view that he had had "a bad night."
If Mr. Obama was criticized for being insufficiently aggressive, Mr. Biden seemed determined to make up for it.
Ms. Raddatz used her foreign policy expertise as she pressed the candidates on topics including Afghanistan and the attack in Libya.
The debate offered a contrast of age as well as ideology. Mr. Biden, 69, was born during the first year of World War II; Mr. Ryan was born in 1970. He was 3 when Mr. Biden took his oath as a senator, and was still in high school when the vice president first ran for the White House in 1988.
In a conference call with reporters hours before Thursday's debate, the president's campaign seemed eager to change the subject from Mr. Obama's performance last week as campaign manager Jim Messina and other staffers pointed to their grass roots strength as a bulwark against eroding poll numbers.
Mr. Messina was happier to talk about debates afterward as he stood in the spin room proclaiming that his candidate had been the winner.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., had a different assessment. "Congressman Ryan looked more vice presidential," she said, criticizing Mr. Biden's frequent laughter and mocking smiles.
Snap polls on the encounter yielded conflicting results. CNN reported that a poll of all voters showed that a majority thought Mr. Ryan won the debate and was more likable and empathetic. CBS reported, however, that a survey of swing voters showed the vice president as the clear winner, with 50 percent choosing Mr. Biden, 31 percent Mr. Ryan and the balance undecided.
National and state-by-state polling numbers have been chastening to the Democrats since Air Force One left Denver. Mr. Obama for the first time is trailing in the national averages compiled by RealClearPolitics and TalkingPointsMemo and results have tightened in the key battlegrounds.
An NBC/Wall Street Journal Marist poll released Wednesday showed Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney essentially tied in Florida, but a poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research found the Republican with a startling seven point lead there -- 51 percent to 44 percent. The Republican has made less startling gains in Colorado, New Hampshire and Wisconsin.
Mr. Obama has seen some erosion in his Ohio numbers as well. Two recent surveys, from Rasmussen and Survey USA showed the state essentially tied but the latest Marist survey as well as an earlier CNN poll continued to show him with a small but significant lead.
In Pennsylvania, recent assessments were a game of follow the bouncing polls. Two surveys earlier in the week found the Republican closing in on his rival in a state that neither has done much to visibly contest in recent weeks. But Rasmussen saw the president maintaining a 51 percent to 46 percent lead while a new Philadelphia Inquirer survey found Mr. Obama leading 50 percent to 42 percent.
It's conceivable that Thursday night's exchanges could change the momentum in the race, but its effects were likely to be quickly overshadowed by the next top-of-the-ticket match-up, when Mr. Obama and Mr Romney meet next week in a town hall format at Hofstra University in New York.
Politics Editor James O'Toole: email@example.com or 412-263-1562. First Published October 12, 2012 4:30 AM