DANVILLE, KY — Democrats wanted an aggressive Joe Biden at the vice presidential debate here, and they got one. In stark contrast to President Obama’s listless performance against Mitt Romney in Denver on Oct. 3, Biden came out of the gate on the attack against Paul Ryan and stayed on offense throughout the 90-minute debate.
Biden’s central message to the audience watching: you can’t trust what the Romney-Ryan ticket says. On issue after issue, Biden told viewers to compare the two teams running for president and trust their instincts when it comes to who will look out for the middle class.
“Look, folks, use your common sense,” Biden said during a discussion of entitlements.
Whereas the lead up to the first presidential debate focused on lowering expectations for how each candidate would perform, Thursday’s vice presidential forum came with great anticipation on both sides. Conservatives hoped Ryan would pick apart Biden, whom they view as a gaffe-prone lightweight. Democrats and progressives demanded a more aggressive performance from Biden than Obama gave in Denver.
Both sides got a little of what they wanted — but for Democrats smarting from Denver, there was much to love.
Biden repeatedly brought up the “47 percent” line Democrats were shocked to see didn’t make an appearance in the Denver debate. He attacked Romney-Ryan’s Iran rhetoric as dangerous “loose talk” and hammered the Republicans’ tax plan. There wasn’t a policy area where Biden didn’t seem willing and eager to go on the attack. Even social issues made an appearance, with an impassioned back and forth over abortion that included Biden saying, “I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that women they can’t control their body.”
But the vice president also stumbled a bit during a discussion of Libya, telling moderator Martha Raddatz “we weren’t told” U.S. diplomats in Benghazi wanted more security ahead of the Sept. 11 attacks that left an American ambassador dead along with three others. That claim is under scrutiny, as Congress investigates whether officials in Libya were denied additional security and whether conditions in the country should have raised further red flags.
For his part, Ryan’s peformance gave Republicans lots to like. He hit key Republican points, didn’t blunder or gaffe, and held his own during several of the more tense exchanges. But Biden was more often the aggressor and his presence was more dominant. After the debate, Republicans in the spin room said Biden, who often interrupted and grinned during Ryan’s answers, looked manic.
“I don’t know that anyone briefed the vice president that these debates have a split screen,” said Ed Gillespie, a top Romney campaign adviser. “I think that the American people watching at home I suspect had to wonder about the vice president’s performance.”
Gillespie said there was “laughing at odd moments” from Biden and said “his voice would rise in anger and frustration and lecturing.”
That was just about a 180-degree reverse from the spin room in Denver, where it was Democrats who were complaining that Romney was overly-aggressive. Democrats seemed happy to be on the other side of that coin.
“My father was respectful and in command of the debate,” Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, the vice president’s son, said. “I was very, very proud of him.”
What impact Biden’s performance will have on the larger presidential race is unclear. The vice presidential debate was expected to draw fewer viewers than the Denver debate, and definitely less than the 2008 debate between Biden and Sarah Palin. But with Romney’s poll numbers surging, both sides hoped the debate would leave a lasting impression. Republicans hoped Ryan’s performance would solidify the gains Romney made after the Denver debate. Democrats hoped an aggressive debate from Biden would help put a stop to Romney’s rising poll numbers and put the Republicans back on the defensive.