It didn't break new ground as a policy discussion, and it didn't reveal much new about the candidates. But the vice presidential debate Thursday night did allow the silver-haired Democratic incumbent Joe Biden and his cerebral young Republican challenger Paul Ryan to promote their running mates, their parties and themselves with a fast-moving series of jabs, parries and substantive arguments as millions of voters watched on national TV.
There was no clear winner in the often-fiery encounter, and no one made any serious mistakes. But Biden may have come on too strong at times. The candidates were shown for most of the 90-minute debate on a split screen with each one reacting in real time to the comments of the other. Biden seemed eager to avoid the passivity shown by his boss, President Obama, in his debate last week with Republican nominee Mitt Romney, a showdown that Romney was widely thought to have won. Yet Biden may have overdone it. Republicans were quick to argue that the vice president was frequently shown grinning in disdain, smirking, shaking his head from side to side in disagreement, and occasionally interrupting Ryan to dispute his comments. Ryan mostly watched impassively, showing little or no reaction or writing notes during Biden's comments.
But at one point, Ryan said, "I think people would be better served if we don't keep interrupting each other."
Much of the debate was devoted to the economy, which is the top issue for most voters.
Each candidate mostly stuck to the talking points that they and their running mates have been using on the campaign trail.
Biden said Obama inherited a horrendous economic downtown, which included the collapse of the financial industry and the auto industry and a rapid loss of jobs. "The economy was in free fall," Biden said, and Obama acted aggressively to correct the problem, which "stopped us from going off the cliff." Meanwhile, Romney opposed many of these actions, including a massive federal stumulus and an auto industry bailout, Biden said.
Ryan, a GOP congressman from Wisconsin and chairman of the House Budget Committee, argued that Romney has a five-point economic plan that would be a big improvement over the status quo. His plan includes less taxation on small business, more job-creating international trade, more development of U.S. energy resources to reduce reliance on foreign fuel sources, and more emphasis on improving education.
Biden also said the Obama-Biden administration won't "privatize" Social Security or Medicare, while a Romney-Ryan administration would.
Ryan said the Medicare program is going broke and needs to be reformed. He said the Democrats were trying to divert attention from the administration's record of failure on the economy.
Biden also raised some issues that Obama didn't in his debate, to the consternation of many fellow Democrats. One was Romney's comment, secretly taped at a fund-raiser, that 47 per cent of Americans rely excessively on the federal government and support Obama, and it's not his job to worry about them. Biden said he's "had it up to here" with such a dismissive attitude toward hard-working Americans.
Since those remarks were made public, Romney has said he misspoke. Ryan added that every candidate makes mistakes amd doesn't say things "the right way," and noted that this is something that the gaffe-prone Biden should understand.
Ryan said that today, "The economy is barely limping along." Job growth has been slow, with 23 million Americans looking for work, he noted, adding: "This is not what a real recovery looks like."
Biden and Ryan, both Catholics, argued their separate positions on abortion. Ryan said he accepts Catholic doctrine that life begins at conception. Biden said he also personally accepts Catholic doctrine that life begins at conception but he won't impose it on others.
Biden also said the next president may have the opportunity to appoint one or more Supreme Court justices, who may rule on abortion, and this should be an important factor in determining how people vote.
The two sparred at length on foreign policy, especially the Iranian regime's nuclear program, which the administration and the Israelis believe is aimed at developing a nuclear weapon. "We will not allow the Iranians to get a nuclear weapon," Biden said. But he argued that the Iranians don't have a weapon now that can deliver nuclear weapons, and remain quite far away from developing one, and he urged Obama's critics to "calm down." He said, "War should absolutely be the last resort."
Ryan said the administration has allowed the problem to fester, hasn't put enough pressure on Iran, and hasn't worked closely enough with the Israelis to resolve the situation.
In the past, vice presidential debates have been sideshows, since it's a battle of Number Twos, and the Biden-Ryan matchup probably followed in that tradition.
The encounter isn't likely to have much impact on the campaign's overall dynamic. Romney has momentum on the strength of his powerful debate performance last week. But the presidential race remains close and hard fought and boils down to eight to 10 battleground states, including Colorado, Iowa, Florida, and Ohio.
The next game-changing moment might happen next week when President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney hold their second debate, on Long Island. Romney was generally considered the winner of their first encounter last week in Denver, and the Biden-Ryan battle probably did little or nothing to slow the momentum the Romney ticket has enjoyed ever since.
It was the only vice presidential debate on the schedule, held in Danville, Ky. and sponsored by a bipartisan debate commission. So it was the only opportunity for the Number Twos to show their stuff, head to head. And they knocked heads and locked horns more than Obama and Romney did last week in Denver.
There have been eight debates between vice presidential nominees since 1976. A study by Gallup found that none of them resulted in any statistical change in a presidential race, not even the famous debate between Democrat Lloyd Bentsen and Republican Dan Quayle in 1988. Quayle, a young senator from Indiana, said his political experience was similar to Sen. John F. Kennedy's in 1960, when JFK won the White House. This was the perfect opening for the august Bentsen to deliver one of the most effective putdowns in vice presidential debate history. "I served with Jack Kennedy," Bentsen said somberly, looking sternly at his rival. "I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." But Bentsen's performance wasn't enough to damage George H. W. Bush, the GOP presidential nomnee, against Democrat Michael Dukakis, and Bush-Quayle went on to win the White House.
There was no similar dramatic moment in Thursday night's debate.
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Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com.