A sneering, finger-jabbing Joe Biden assailed Paul Ryan in a high-octane vice-presidential debate on Thursday night but failed to deliver a knockout blow in a ‘disrespectful’ display that left many shocked.
With a flash of his teeth and a lot of finger-jabbing the Vice President won plaudits from his fans, but his performance ran a very high risk of being seen as bullying and condescending, alienating swing and female voters.
Veteran columnist Peggy Noonan described Biden as ‘weirdly aggressive’ and said his bullishness ‘looked mean and second-rate’ as Republicans claimed that Biden interrupted Ryan 82 times during the 90-minute debate.
The big question in the next few days will be whether his brutish display will turn around or even hurt the Obama campaign, which has been struggling ever since the President’s limp performance during last week’s presidential debate in Denver.
Republican strategist Karen Hanretty wrote on Twitter that Ryan gave Biden the ‘let the crazy uncle speak his mind at Thanksgiving dinner’ look.
But Massachusetts senator John Kerry, also taking to Twitter, thought Biden was so convincing that ‘by the end of this, Ryan may vote for Joe.’
The conservative group ‘Campaign To Defeat Obama’ quickly sought to raise money off Biden’s ‘rude and arrogant’ performance, sending a fundraising email to supporters asking for contributions.
The Republican National Committee also attempted to make political capital from the Vice President’s demeanour, releasing an ad which cut together a dozen shots of Biden laughing and asked: ‘Vice President Biden is laughing – are you?’
Obama campaign manager Jim Messina retorted: ‘When the other side is talking about eye rolls and smirks they are losing the debate.’
Respected political journalist Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal: ‘The old man tried to patronise the kid and the kid stood his ground. The old man pushed, and the kid pushed back.’
She wrote that the Vice President was ‘disrespectful and full of bluster’, and concluded: ‘Biden was so childishly manipulative that it will be surprising if independents and undecideds liked what they saw.’
CNN’s Gloria Borger agreed with that analysis, saying: ‘He was condescending at times to Paul Ryan. I think I could have done with a lot less eye-rolling and chuckling on the part of Joe Biden.’
In the Washington Post, Chris Cilizza argued that the bravura performance could backfire as the Vice President ‘bordered on bullying Ryan’.
‘Biden’s derisive smiles and laughs while Ryan tried to answer questions weren’t great optics for the Vice President and his repeated interruptions won’t make those who think politics should be more civil happy,’ he wrote.
Commentators on Fox News were (perhaps unsurprisingly) even more dismissive of Biden – anchor Chris Wallace said, ‘I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a debate in which one participant was as openly disrespectful of the other as Biden was to Paul Ryan tonight.’
Brit Hume added: ‘It looked like a cranky old man to some extent debating a polite young man.’
Greta Van Susteren also pitched in, saying, ‘The smiles, the sneers… it made Vice President Joe Biden – someone who I typically like – I thought he was very unlikeable.’
Romney’s senior adviser tweeted, ‘My advice to Team Obama: No more Red Bull in the Biden hold room.’
However, many liberal partisans were delighted by the passionate display. Outspoken comedian Bill Maher, who has given $1million to a Pro-Obama super PAC, wrote on Twitter: ‘Hello 911? There’s an old man beating a child on my TV.’
Among voters, it was a very close call according to immediate snap polls conducted by TV channels. A CNN poll of debate-watchers put Ryan ahead by a small margin, with 48 per cent naming him the winner against 44 per cent saying they preferred Biden.
In the opening minutes of the debate, which set the tone of the face-off, Biden mocked Ryan’s view of looming defense cuts, saying: ‘With all due respect, that’s a bunch of malarkey.’
He even accused Ryan and Romney of being anti-American in their ‘politically motivated’ response to the terror attacks in Benghazi.
‘I’ve never seen two guys who are more down on America across the board,’ he said at one point. At another, he exclaimed: ‘These guys bet against America all the time!’
During the debate, which was especially sparky in the first hour, Biden raised laughter when he asserted, ‘this is a bunch of stuff’ and interjected: ‘Oh God!’
Listening to Ryan patiently outline the Romney-Ryan economic plan, he stated: ‘All this bluster, and all this loose talk. What are they talking about?’
Armed with the kind of attack lines that Obama failed to deliver against Romney in Denver last week, Biden laid into Romney for his notorious remark about not caring about the ’47 per cent’ who did not pay federal income tax.
Ryan hit back at Biden, who is notoriously gaffe-prone: ’I think the Vice President very well knows that sometimes the words don’t come out of your mouth the right way.’
And at one point, the Republican candidate directly criticised his opponent’s relentless attacks, saying: ‘I know you’re under a lot of duress to make up for lost ground, but I think people would be better served if we don’t interrupt each other.’
His most cutting attack on the Obama administration came during his closing statement, when he said: ‘You have a President who ran for President four years ago promising hope and change, who has now turned his campaign into attack, blame and defame.’
Biden, 69, made a jibe about 42-year-old Ryan’s youth when the congressman noted that President John F. Kennedy had cut taxes. ‘Oh now you’re Jack Kennedy? This is amazing!’
Biden was attempting to emulate the late Senator Lloyd Bentsen who in 1988 famously told the younger Senator Dan Quayle that ‘you’re no Jack Kennedy’.
The Vice President repeatedly referred to his rival as ‘my friend’ – but the tone was less than friendly as the pair clashed over and over again, on issues from spending to defence to unemployment.
Biden laughed when Ryan brought up ‘devastating defence cuts’, accusing him of talking a ‘bunch of malarkey’ as he exclaimed: ‘Not a single thing he has said is accurate’.
Ryan made some well-guided attacks on the failure of intelligence and security over the Benghazi terror attacks on September 11, and Iran.
Biden, however, said Romney looked ‘unpresidential’ in his response to the terror attacks.
The Vice President went where Obama had feared to tread, accusing Mr Romney of ignoring 47 per cent of the country – a reference to a secretly filmed video of the candidate talking to a group of wealthy donors earlier this year.
The two had a spirited exchange when Ryan said, ‘The Vice President very well knows, sometimes the words don’t come out of your mouth the right way,’ to which Biden replied: ‘I always say what I mean – and so does Romney.’
HEALTHCARE AND SOCIAL SECURITY
The two running mates also clashed over Social Security and healthcare, as Ryan defended his reform plans saying: ‘If you reform these programmes for my generation, you can guarantee they don’t have to change for those aged 50 and above.’
The Republican also denounced the bodies introduced by the Obamacare reform to make decisions on the provision of certain treatments, characterising them as ‘death panels’. Biden replied by comparing his opponent to Sarah Palin, John McCain’s running mate in 2008, as he said: ‘I heard that death panel argument from Sarah Palin.’
Another frequent talking point of the Romney campaign emerged when the talk turned to Medicare, as Ryan said: ‘Obamacare takes $716billion from Medicare to spend on Obamacare. Even their own chief actuary at Medicare backs this up.’
After the congressman talked about Romney’s compassion towards a family whose sons had died in a tragic car accident, the Vice President attempted to draw a distinction between the candidate’s character and his politics, saying: ‘I don’t doubt his personal commitment to individuals – but I doubt his commitment to the auto industry.’
THE ECONOMY – RYAN ON THE ATTACK
When the talk turned to Ryan’s specialist subject – the economy – the Republican was predictably critical of what he saw as the ‘waste’ of billions of stimulus money, in particular a number of investments in ‘green jobs’ provided by firms such as Solyndra which later went bankrupt.
He attacked the sluggish recovery from crisis over the past four years, saying: ‘Look, did they come in and inherit a tough situation? Absolutely. But we’re going in the wrong direction. Look at where we are. The economy is barely limping along.’
In his closing statement, the congressman delivered a powerful denunciation of excessive government spending as he declared: ‘A debt crisis is coming. We can’t keep spending and borrowing like this. We can’t keep spending money we don’t have.’
But Biden accused the congressman of seeking stimulus money for pet projects despite his opposition to the scheme. Ryan acknowledged applying for funding on behalf of Wisconsin businesses, saying: ‘That’s what we do.’
On unemployment, Ryan scored a hit by saying, ‘Joe and I are from similar towns’ – and then pointing that joblessness in Biden’s hometown of Scranton had risen to more than 10 per cent over the past four years.
Biden fought back with a reference to Romney’s own tax rate, pointing out that when the candidate was asked if he felt it was fair that he paid just 14 per cent in tax – less than workers who earn just $50,000 – he replied that he it was. ‘You think these guys are going to go out there and cut these loopholes?’, the Vice President asked.
He presented himself as the man who understands the needs of the middle class best: ‘Look at my record. It’s been all about the middle class. They’re the people who grow this country. We think you grow this country from the middle out, not from the top down.’
SOCIAL ISSUES – TWO CATHOLICS DIVIDED ON ABORTION
Biden spoke in a quiet, hoarse voice as he said, ‘My religion defines who I am,’ insisting that he personally believed that life begins at birth but said he did not want to impose his own beliefs on other people.
But Ryan refused to compromise on his staunch pro-life views, even as he said, ‘I respect people who don’t agree with me on this,’ as he reiterated that a Romney administration would seek to make abortion illegal except in cases of rape or incest, or to protect the life of the mother.
‘I don’t see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith,’ he said. ‘Our faith informs us in everything we do.’
Biden warned that if Romney and Ryan are elected, they will appoint conservative justices in the vein of Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court who would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade and enable some states to criminalise abortion.
Both presidential candidates praised their running mates after the debate.
‘I thought Joe Biden was terrific tonight,’ Obama told reporters after watching proceedings on board Air Force One. ‘I could not be prouder of him.’
Romney watched the debate with Ohio senator Rob Portman in his hotel room in Asheville, North Carolina, and called up Ryan afterwards to congratulate him.
For Mr Biden, Thursday night’s debate was his first since the 2008 campaign, when he shared a stage with Sarah Palin, then John McCain’s running mate.
Mr Ryan spars frequently with Democrats during debates on legislation on the House floor and in the House Budget Committee, which he chairs, but not in a one-on-one encounter covering 90 minutes and a virtually unlimited range of topics.
For all their differences, the two men share a common objective, to advance the cause of their tickets in a close race for the presidency – and avoid a gaffe that might forever seal their place in the history of debates.
Mr Romney’s choice of Mr Ryan as running mate over the summer cheered conservatives in the House, many of whom regard him as their leader on budget and economic issues.
The seven-term lawmaker has authored a pair of deficit-reducing budgets in the past two years that call for spending cuts and changes in Medicare, blueprints that Republicans passed through the House and Democrats frequently criticise. He also champions a no-tax increase approach to economic policy.
As a senator before becoming Vice President, Mr Biden was chairman of the Foreign Relations and Judiciary committees, and he has long experience in national security issues.
More recently, he was Mr Obama’s point man in arduous, ultimately unsuccessful negotiations with Republicans on steps to cut the deficit.
Both candidates held extensive rehearsals, with stand-ins for their opponents.
Mr Biden turned to Maryland congressman Chris Van Hollen, who is well-versed in Mr Ryan’s policy views from his tenure as senior Democrat on the Budget Committee.
Mr Ryan’s foil in rehearsal was former Solicitor General Ted Olson, a skillful courtroom advocate.
The two presidential candidates will meet in Hempstead, New York on Tuesday, and then again for a final debate in Boca Raton, Florida on October 22.