In Denver, President Barack Obama could barely muster the energy to look at the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney. But at center College in Danville, Kentucky Thursday night, it sometimes seemed as if Biden could barely contain himself. He smirked, laughed, mugged for the cameras and frequently interrupted his young opponent, who gave back just as good as he got.
In the end, it was pretty much of a draw. Media “snap polls” were all over the map: CNN had Ryan on top, 48 percent to 44, while CBS had Biden way ahead at 50 percent to Ryan’s 31.
In the long run, it may not matter all that much. As more than one political analyst has pointed out, people vote the top of the ticket. This is a race between Obama and Romney; all the second stringers could hope to do was provide some welcome relief from the somber mood that has overtaken the main campaign.
That they did, and then some.
The Kentucky debate was structured quite differently from the one in Denver. The two men were seated at the same table, rather than standing at podiums on either side of the stage. The moderator, ABC’s Martha Raddatz asked probing questions and kept the two men on track, cutting them off when necessary. This provided a welcome contrast to Jim Lehrer’s rambling lack of oversight last week.
The subject matter also differed: in Denver, the candidates were held to domestic policy; in Kentucky, Raddatz alternated between foreign and domestic issues.
The sparks began to fly almost immediately.
“With all due respect, that’s a bunch of malarkey,” Biden said less than 10 minutes into the debate. The topic at hand was defense, and Ryan was delivering his well-honed diatribe against defense cuts, saying that they projected weakness.
But the subject mattered little; what the audience seemed to relish was the spirit of give and take, the lively and occasionally irreverent word play that kept viewers riveted and pundits scratching their heads.
The foreign policy portion of the debate was particularly acrimonious, perhaps because there is very little real difference between the two parties on substance. Both agree that Iran should not have a nuclear weapon, both agree that the United States should not send troops to Syria.
The attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi provided an occasion for trading barbs, but on policy, all the two men could do was exchange thinly veiled insults.
“(Iran is) moving faster toward a nuclear weapon … because this administration has no credibility on this issue,” said Ryan.
Biden just shook his head and laughed. “It’s incredible,” he replied. “What are you -- you're going to go to war? Is that what you want to do?”
On domestic policy, the two men had real differences. Medicare dominated the debate, with each side simply stating that the other side was wrong, and tossing out figures to prove their point.
Biden seemed intent on gaining ground that Obama had lost in the first debate, capitalizing on several perceived weaknesses in his opponents’ position. He made several references to the infamous “47 percent” remarks made by Romney at a fundraiser last May, in which he dismissed almost half the population as being more or less beneath his notice. He also pointed to a recent speech in which Ryan had said that “30 percent of the American people are takers,” willing to live on handouts from the government.
“These people are my mom and dad -- the people I grew up with, my neighbors,” said Biden. “I've had it up to here with this notion that 47 percent -- it's about time they take some responsibility here.”
Both men proved to be skilled debaters, meaning very few questions were answered directly. Fact checkers will be busy for days running down the figures and statements each man made, but in general the 90-minute conversation was more about shaking up the campaign than actually floating policy initiatives.
Romney had gained a lot of ground since his strong showing at the first presidential debate. Obama’s strangely lackluster performance allowed the Republican nominee to nullify some of the president’s growing advantage, especially in important swing states.
The Democratic campaign had seemed adrift, rudderless, and Biden supplied a much-needed boost Thursday night. But Ryan did not concede any points, either.
“I don’t know who won,” said Richard Girard, a retired psychology professor, who now lives in a development for seniors in New Hampshire. “I am very frustrated with the lack of clarity in what they want to do.”
Girard was ordained as a Catholic priest some 45 years ago; he left the ministry and has been married for 36 years. But he is still active in the Church, and he followed Thursday’s debate on social issues carefully.
Both Biden and Ryan are Catholics, and Raddatz called upon them both to explain how their religion influenced their positions on abortion. The Catholic Church is strongly anti-abortion, and some of the clergy have stepped over the line when it comes to pushing a political agenda.
In the church that the Girards attend, some parishioners have complained that the local priest has told them in no uncertain terms that “as good Catholics you should vote red.”
Ryan and Biden are on opposite sides of the issue; Biden echoes the Democratic position, which is pro-choice. Ryan in the past has supported a total ban on abortion, even in cases of rape or incest, or where the mother’s life is in danger. He has moderated this stance to conform more closely to Romney’s sometimes-conflicting opinions on the subject.
Just a few days ago, Romney told the Des Moines register that "There's no legislation with regards to abortion that I'm familiar with that would become part of my agenda." His campaign quickly walked this back, stating that Romney remained firmly pro-life. On Thursday night, Ryan would not say that abortion would remain legal under a Romney administration.
This is not a position that greatly impresses the former Father Girard. He, as well as other present and former members of the clergy who watched the debate, have a more nuanced view of the question.
“Pro-life means you care about people throughout their life span,” he said. “You cannot say ‘we want this baby to be born’ and then wash your hands of him. You must try and enhance people’s life with education and everything else.”
Girard shook his head.
“I have looked at the Ryan budget, with its cuts to education, nutrition, and other things,” he said. “Our priority as Catholics is to care for the people. The Ryan budget does not do that. In my opinion, Paul Ryan is not pro-life.”