As expected, Vice President Joe Biden was on the offensive last night in his debate with Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, eschewing the strained caution that marked President Barack Obama's debating style last week.
And it may have paid off. According to a CBS flash poll of uncommitted voters, 50% thought Mr. Biden won the debate. Thirty-one percent deemed Ryan the winner, and 19% said they felt it was a tie. (A CNN poll, which slightly overindexed on Republicans, found that Mr. Ryan won by a narrow margin. CNN's post-debate poll last week was criticized for including only white Southerners over the age of 50.)
The Mr. Biden who showed up last night in Kentucky was considerably different from the version who debated Sarah Palin in 2008, when he was restrained and non-confrontational against a polarizing public figure who had nonetheless managed to capture the public's imagination. Against the relatively little-known Mr. Ryan, Mr. Biden was spirited and occasionally combative, characterizing one of his opponent's responses as "malarkey" in the early moments of the debate (a description that became a trending topic of Twitter and which he subsequently repeated twice). He also repeatedly -- and detractors would say condescendingly -- referred to the 27-years-younger Mr. Ryan as "my friend."
Fox News's Chris Wallace seemed to sum up much of the Republican reaction to the debate by characterizing Mr. Biden as "openly contemptuous and disrespectful" of Mr. Ryan, while Democrats were ebullient about him in the wake of President Obama's poorly received performance last week. And while some conservatives accused moderator Martha Raddatz of being in the Obama camp's corner by challenging Mr. Ryan's assertions more frequently than Mr. Biden's, she was widely praised for her quickness to ask follow-up questions and to rein the candidates in. According to commentator and Obama supporter Andrew Sullivan, who'd spent much of the last week worrying that Mr. Obama's debate performance had lost the election, last night "was a solid win for Biden, I'd say; as well as a competent performance by Ryan. The star? Raddatz."
Mr. Biden appeared to land one of his strongest blows in the debate when Mr. Ryan was decrying the Obama administration for distributing $90 billion in stimulus dollars as "green pork to campaign contributors and special interest groups." The vice president quickly pivoted by noting that Mr. Ryan had on two occasions written letters requesting stimulus money for Wisconsin companies. Reacting to Mr. Ryan's accusations of cronyism governing the dispersal of stimulus funds, Mr. Biden at one point appeared to struggle to keep his temper in check (and refrain from letting loose one of the verbal slips he's become notorious for).
"I wish he would just tell ... be a little more candid," Mr. Biden said, visibly stopping himself from taking the more combative tack.
In one of the more contentious exchanges of the debate (in response to Ms. Raddatz's question about who will pay more in taxes and who will pay less if the candidates' respective tickets were elected), Mr. Biden said that the Romney-Ryan pledge of a 20% across-the-board tax cut was "not mathematically possible." For his part, Mr. Ryan attacked Mr. Biden's avowal that 97% of small businesses make less than $250,000 and thus would not be subject to a tax increase when the Bush tax cuts expire. ("It taxes a million small businesses who are our greatest job creators," he said. Meanwhile, Mr. Biden challenged his definition of a "small business," implying that it includes hedge funds.)
Ms. Raddatz closed the debate by asking the candidates what they made of the negative advertising that has been pervasive in the campaign. Mr. Biden deflected the question by placing the blame on super PACs, referring to the phenomenon of groups that raise unlimited amounts of cash without having to identify themselves and "who say the most scurrilous things about the other candidate" as "an abomination."
When it was his turn to speak, Mr. Ryan didn't directly answer the question and instead framed an attack on the Obama administration.
"I would say, 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," he said.