During a vice presidential debate with Paul Ryan on Thursday night, Joe Biden did what President Barack Obama failed to do: He attacked and vigorously defended their record.
The debate was instantly confrontational as Biden and Ryan argued over the best approach to Iran, Medicare and the economy and expressed deep differences on abortion.
"Mr. Vice President, 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 keep interrupting each other," Ryan said early on, jabbing at Obama's lethargic debate performance in Denver.
The night began with a discussion of the attacks on a U.S. consulate in Libya and Iran's nuclear intentions.
"It took the president two weeks to acknowledge that this was a terrorist attack," Ryan said, suggesting the event was representative of "the unraveling of the Obama foreign policy, which is making the world more chaotic and us less safe."
Biden grinned widely, shook his head and interjected, "With all due respect, that's a bunch of malarkey." It was a posture he held throughout the 90 minutes, at times snarky and defiant and exasperated.
"I don't know what world these guys are living in," Biden said. "Facts matter."
Biden said the administration acted on what intelligence reports came out of Libya and invoked Ryan's budget blueprint, saying it would have cut hundreds of millions for security and said economic sanctions had crippled Iran's economy.
The budget does call for broad cuts but not specifically toward embassies.
Vice presidential debates rarely affect the race, but Thursday's at Centre College in Danville, Ky. — billed as the Thrill in the 'Ville — arrived with heightened pressure after last week's presidential debate, watched on TV by more than 67 million people, in which Mitt Romney dominated Obama. Momentum shifted dramatically, and Obama's advantage vanished in critical states.
Nervous Democrats looked to Biden to blunt any more GOP progress, and the 69-year-old political veteran attacked all night, challenging Ryan and often turning directly to the camera to talk to viewers.
"I've never met two guys who are more down on America across the board," Biden said after Ryan asserted the country was not in a "real" recovery. "We're told everything's going bad." Biden touted the millions of jobs that have been created since Obama took office.
For Ryan, 42, the goal was to not cede ground and to show himself capable of being a step from the Oval Office. Ryan was comfortable and landed his own shots. He also told warm stories about Romney's generosity, including paying for college for two boys paralyzed in a car crash.
"This is a man who gave 30 percent of his income to charity, more than the two of us combined," Ryan said. "Mitt Romney's a good man. He cares about 100 percent of Americans in this country."
The remark was a reference to Romney's saying at a Florida fundraiser in May that 47 percent of Americans are dependent on government handouts and saw themselves as victims. A secret video of the remarks recently surfaced, and Democrats pounced, portraying Romney as cold and insensitive.
One of Ryan's strongest moments came when he described his and Romney's plans to revamp Medicare, an issue that Democrats have used to their advantage.
"They haven't put a credible solution on the table," Ryan said. "He'll tell you about vouchers. He'll say all these things to try and scare people." He said a voucher-like program would be optional for seniors and not affect anyone currently in the program and was intended to preserve the program.
Biden said Obama had made steps to streamline Medicare, including $716 billion in savings that were applied to the health care law. "Folks, follow your instincts on this one," Biden said, trying to warn voters against the Republican effort.
But Ryan was also pressed into uncomfortable spots.
When debate moderator Martha Raddatz asked him to provide specifics of Romney's proposed 20 percent across-the-board tax cut, Ryan did not offer any. He said Romney had offered a framework and that specifics would be hammered out with Congress.
Biden also pointed out that Ryan voted for a budget deal that included the automatic defense cuts if another deal is not reached.
And during a discussion on the stimulus — a favorite target of Republicans — Biden reminded the audience that Ryan himself lobbied behind the scenes for funds for two projects in his home state of Wisconsin.
"You did ask for stimulus money, correct?" Raddatz asked.
Biden answered before Ryan. "Sure he did."
Raddatz, a foreign correspondent for ABC, drew widespread praise for her handling of the debate, keeping the discussion moving and not letting the rivals go off on long tangents. It was a stark contrast to last week, when PBS's Jim Lehrer was overwhelmed by the presidential candidates.
Biden and Ryan disagreed on the approach to Afghanistan, with Biden adamantly defending the president's plan to remove troops by 2014 and Ryan arguing that a pre-prescribed date telegraphed too much to U.S. enemies.
Biden said the job was largely done, including the death of Osama bin Laden and hurting al-Qaida and training Afghan troops. "We are leaving," he said. "We are leaving in 2014. Period."
Ryan said Republicans did not want to extend beyond 2014, either, but said the effort is not going well and again suggested Obama's foreign policy was a failure.
On abortion, Ryan said his Catholic faith accounted for his "pro-life" stance but also science, telling how a sonogram allowed him and his wife to see his first child inside with womb. "I believe that life begins at conception," Ryan said.
Biden, also Catholic, said he accepted the church's position that life begins at conception and he personally believed the same. "But I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here, the congressman."
Raddatz asked, "If the Romney-Ryan ticket is elected, should those who believe that abortion should remain legal be worried?
"We don't think that unelected judges should make this decision that people through their elected representatives in reaching a consensus in society through the democratic process should make this determination," Ryan replied.
"The court — the next president will get one or two Supreme Court nominees. That's how close Roe vs. Wade is," Biden said, asking people to imagine whom Romney would appoint.
At the end, the men were asked if they were ever embarrassed by the tone of the campaign. Biden said at times, yes, but insisted he and Obama had the right policies to lead the country forward.
"You have a president who ran for president four years ago promised hope and change who has now turned his campaign into attack, blame and defame," Ryan said.
The debate was the only one between Biden and Ryan. Now focus returns to the top of the ticket. Obama and Romney will debate next week in New York then Oct. 22 in Boca Raton.
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected]