DANVILLE, Ky. -- Vice President Joe Biden and Republican rival Paul Ryan sparred Thursday in often personal terms that exposed their passions and core beliefs over the role of their faith, families, and deeply held views about the role of government in American life and foreign policy.
Both men were assertive from the outset, a reflection of the closeness of the presidential race just weeks before the election, each eager to trumpet the strengths of their tickets and equally zealous in ripping the other party.
Biden was aggressive, hoping to make up for President Barack Obama's tepid performance in his opening debate last week against Republican nominee Mitt Romney, a performance that reset the race and thrust the Republicans back into contention. Pressing to make his points, Biden at times raised his voice and jabbed his finger at moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News.
Ryan was more measured, often lowering his voice after Biden. A fresh-faced congressman who had never debated on the national stage despite his 14 years in the House of Representatives, Ryan betrayed no signs of nervousness about the showdown with Biden.
Usually an afterthought with little impact on the race, the only such meeting between the No. 2s on their respective tickets took on added significance after the initial presidential face-off last week and Obama's negative reviews Oct. 3.
Since then, Romney has pulled even with Obama in national polls and closed the gap in several battleground states.
In Florida, Romney opened up a 7 point lead, according to a new Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9/Miami Herald poll. Obama has a 1 percentage point edge over Romney in a new NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll of likely voters, released Thursday. The margin was the same as before the Obama-Romney debate. In Ohio, Obama leads by 6 points. He had led by 8. And in Virginia, Obama was up 2, but Romney is now ahead by 1.
In their sole debate, Biden and Ryan sparred repeatedly on domestic policies such as Medicare and taxes, as well as foreign policy questions such as the attack in Libya that led to the deaths of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador.
Most covered the same ground as Obama and Romney. It was their personal exchanges where they shed new light on the two major party tickets and their policies.
Both Irish Roman Catholics, Biden and Ryan spoke about how their faith drives their different positions on abortion.
"Our faith informs us in every thing we do," Ryan said. He added that science also plays a role in his opposition to abortion rights in most cases, saying he and his wife were touched by the ultrasound image of their unborn first child.
While he himself favors more limits, he said Romney's policy would be to oppose abortion except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.
He criticized the Obama administration for supporting abortion rights without any limits, and Biden for saying once he would not second-guess China's one-child policy that can lead to forced abortion.
“My religion defines who I am,” Biden said, stressing both his church’s caring for the poor as well as its belief that life begins at conception.
“Catholic social doctrine talks about taking care of those who can’t take care of themselves,” Biden said.
While he said he shares the belief that life begins at conception, he said that was personal.
“I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews,” he said. “I don’t believe we have the right to tell women they can’t control their lives.”
At another point, Ryan saluted Biden’s son, Beau, for serving in the military. Biden noted at another that he experienced tragedy firsthand when his first wife and daughter were killed in an auto accident.
In one of the more personal exchanges, Ryan told how Romney helped a family hit by injuries pay for college, and how he gives more than 30 percent of his income to charity – more than Biden and Ryan combined. “Mitt Romney is good man,” Ryan said.
Referring to the criticism of Romney’s secretly taped comments disparaging 47 percent of Americans as freeloaders, Ryan said, “He cares about 100 percent of the Americans.”
Noting Biden’s own tendency for gaffes, Ryan joked that “sometimes the words don’t come out of your mouth the right way.”
“I don’t doubt his personal commitment to individuals,” Biden said. “But I know he had no commitment to the automobile industry.”
Romney opposed the government bailout of Chrysler and General Motors. Both automakers are now on firmer financial ground.
Biden was animated throughout the debate, at turns smiling and laughing, as well as grimacing in response to Ryan’s answers to Raddatz’s questions. The vice president interrupted – which he did repeatedly – as Ryan criticized the administration’s Middle East policy.
“That’s a bunch of malarkey," Biden said, subsequently suggesting that Ryan’s remarks were "a bunch of stuff."
When Raddatz gave him a quizzical look, Biden told her, "It’s simply inaccurate."
Ryan offered, "It’s Irish."
Their personal exchanges notwithstanding, the two clashed over policies.
Ryan challenged the Obama administration’s first accounts of the Libya attacks, which at first claimed that an anti-Muslim video inflamed a crowd rather than calling it a terrorist attack. He noted that President Barack Obama referred to the video six times in a speech to the United Nations after the Libya attack.
“This is becoming more troubled by the day,” Ryan said of the still-emerging details of what the administration knew in those first days after the attack. Ryan said it was “indicative of a broader problem . . . the unraveling of the Obama foreign policy.”
Biden defended the administration’s response, saying it relied on intelligence reports that turned out to be false. “We will get to the bottom of it,” he said.
They tangled on Iran, with Ryan charging that Iran is “racing toward” developing nuclear weapons and that the administration dragged its feet to impose sanctions it now says are working to deter the regime. “When Barack Obama was elected, they had enough nuclear material to make one bomb. Now they have enough for five,” Ryan said.
Biden accused Republicans of “bluster” and “loose talk” and asked Ryan what else could be done beyond the “most crippling sanctions in the history of sanctions.” He asked whether Ryan was saying that he’d back a war with Iran.
“How are they going to prevent war if there’s nothing more they say we should do than we’ve already done,” Biden said. “We feel quite confident we could deal a serious blow to the Iranians.”
Heading into the debate, the two campaigns clashed repeatedly in ever tougher tones since the first presidential debate shook up the race.
Most notably, Romney has appeared to stake out or emphasize more moderate parts of his agenda, and the Obama-Biden campaign has all but accused the Romney-Ryan ticket of lying to paper over the more conservative message that Romney used to win his party’s nomination.
– On Medicare, Obama wants to retain the traditional system, relying on the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to extend the life of the program by raising fees, and shaving $716 billion from anticipated payments to health care providers.
Ryan accuses Obama of looking to loot Medicare of $716 billion to help pay for the health care law, but Ryan used the same $716 billion in savings in the 10-year budget he proposed as chairman of the House Budget Committee. He’s since backtracked from his plan, and Romney insists he’d return the money to Medicare.
“We are not going to jeopardize Medicare,” Ryan said.
Romney vows to repeal Obama’s health care act and would replace the system. Starting in 2023, he’d give people checks to buy Medicare or private insurance. He’s said his plan is more efficient and allows seniors to make their own choices. Ryan had proposed a similar plan that would cap the amount of those government checks, or vouchers, but Romney would not cap them.
Obama said Romney’s plan would see healthier individuals being covered by private insurance companies, leaving the most ill and vulnerable with a frayed Medicare system.
– On taxes, Obama wants to raise taxes on incomes above $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for families.
Romney promises to cut tax rates across the board, which by itself would add nearly $5 trillion to the deficit, according to an independent analysis. Romney denies that it would cost that much, noting at the last debate that he would propose unspecified offsets, such as limits on deductions that would ensure that wealthier Americans end up paying the same share of the country’s taxes as they do now.
Biden argued that Obama has led with a steady and solid foreign policy from Afghanistan and Iraq to the Middle East. “The president has led with a steady hand and a clear vision,” he said.