DANVILLE, Ky. -- Vice President Joe Biden gave Democrats what they needed most from the debate here Thursday night -- a jolt of energy that came from hitting Republicans in all the places they are presumed to be most vulnerable and chasing away memories of President Barack Obama's flaccid debate performance the week before.
But Biden didn't do much more than that. It is clear that Biden's substantive high points -- and there were several places where he took clear command of the debate on issues ranging from entitlements to taxes -- will be partly shadowed by his nonstop succession of incredulous smiles, sneers, taunts and guffaws that were apparently intended to show self-confidence and fighting spirit but struck many viewers as undignified and rude.
Paul Ryan, for his part, gave Republicans the minimum they needed. He turned in a passable performance with no big errors and with very occasional -- and very faint -- flashes of the energetic young domestic policy activist that first won him the national spotlight.
But Ryan didn't do much more than that. His earnest-but-bland performance rarely if ever dominated the evening, and it is unlikely that he left many Republicans fantasizing about the day when it is Ryan himself running for president and taking the fight to Democrats. If he didn't do any damage to Romney, it is possible he did himself some slight damage to his own long-term reputation.
If all this sounds like a pretty mixed verdict, that's exactly right.
Republicans, thanks to Romney's strong performance and Obama's weak showing last week, have closed the gap in many swing states to where many political strategists long thought the race would be in the final stretch: competitive but with a clear Democratic advantage in the Electoral College. The president was never going to roll with high single-digit leads in states like Ohio and Virginia, and now Democrats have had their inevitable correction after a near-perfect six-week run.
Biden calmed his party's nerves and gave Democrats something to get about excited Thursday, but few people in either the campaign headquarters in Chicago and Boston or in the professional operative class in Washington expect the race will return to its September high-water mark for Democrats.
The Biden-Ryan exchange presents challenges for both presidential nominees when they meet at Hofstra University on Long Island on Tuesday. Obama will need to match Biden's substantive aggressiveness, while avoiding stylistic excesses that would look especially out of place for a president. Romney must revive his momentum from the Denver debate after Ryan did little to help the cause at the Centre College debate here.
The evening likely counts as the most bickering, least decorous and at a few moments -- when Biden's and Ryan's interruptions and insults went flying simultaneously -- downright raucous exchange of any presidential or vice presidential debate in the 36 years since these have become regular events on the general election presidential calendar.
But there's scant reason to believe a debate among vice presidential nominees can in any lasting way alter the trajectory of the race. The Biden-Ryan clash and the day or two in which post-debate chatter will dominate national conversation about the campaign will effectively amount to a holding pattern until Tuesday.
But if the evening may not prove consequential, it was without doubt entertaining -- at least for the first 30 minutes, until the manic nature of Biden's performance and the incessant interruptions may have become a bit repetitive or annoying for some viewers.
As much as is possible in a debate setting, Biden played the role of an upbeat keynote speaker at a downcast Jefferson-Jackson Dinner. With something more than just gusto, he trotted out old Democratic standbys like Social Security, abortion rights and tax fairness to hammer Republicans and fire up his own angst-ridden partisans. Repeatedly turning from Ryan to address his preferred audience in the camera, the former Delaware senator was every bit the pol on the stump -- all flesh and blood and with his characteristic lapel-grabbing intensity.
"For all of us who have been working so hard for the president ... knocking on doors and phone banking, I think they tuned in and said, 'thank goodness -- the vice president is not afraid to go toe to toe with this guy," said Democratic Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley.
David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, praised Biden for making a "robust case" but suggested that the face-off here in this central Kentucky college town would soon be superseded by next Tuesday's second presidential forum.
"There are going to be other debates and other events that I think will shape the race further," said Axelrod.
The Democratic line in the spin room was that Joe was being Joe, ever the happy warrior. Republicans countered by saying that vice president's behavior was unbecoming and at times plain rude.
"I thought he was completely disrespectful," said Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.).
Romney's strategy after the debate was to make Biden's mannerisms the story, something Obama officials predictably said reflected an admission that Republicans lost on substance.
It's clear that on more than one occasion -- certainly on Ryan's support for stimulus projects in his Wisconsin district and Biden's case against the GOP proposals for entitlements -- the vice president landed some blows.
But Biden distracted from his own strong message by making no attempt to restrain himself from exaggerated guffaws and, more damaging, constant interruptions of Ryan.
Constantly calling Ryan "my friend" -- he used some version of that phrase at least nine times -- Biden adapted the rhetorical style of the old-style senator that he was for 36 years.
Ryan, for his part, looked and sounded like this was the first time he had ever been in such a prominent debate setting, which it was.
The different styles and experience levels made the evening seem at times like a contest between Foghorn Leghorn and Doogie Howser, M.D.
The House Budget Committee chairman's performance was adequate, but hardly a -star-is-born moment in front of his biggest audience yet. That is to say, the other future Republican White House aspirants watching at home Thursday likely aren't nervous after watching Ryan on stage here.
"It was like a professor and a student," gloated Democratic Kentucky Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson of the dynamic between Biden and Ryan.
That may be overstating it, but Ryan didn't do much to reinforce his reputation as the GOP's brainy rock star.
In fairness to the congressman, he was facing a steady stream of interjections from Biden and a more engaged moderator than the presidential candidates did last week.
"I thought [Martha Raddatz] asserted herself more than Mr. Lehrer did, but there was still a great deal of crosstalk, there was still a great deal of difficulty making points in a reasonable and progressive fashion," said Ryan spokesman Michael Steel.
Yet it was notable that Republican surrogates here dutifully praised the 42-year-old vice presidential nominee but were chiefly interested in highlighting Romney while criticizing Biden's overzealousness.
"I thought Ryan won the debate, it was a strong performance by him, but what really I think reset the campaign was last week with Mitt Romney," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).
The first two debates left no doubt with the GOP ticket who was on the undercard and who was competing in the main event.
The vice presidential candidates are almost always willing to go further in tone and language than the presidential nominees, but the incessant bickering here also seemed a fitting stand-in for a broader campaign that generates more heat than light.
At one point, Biden scoffed in the middle of a Ryan answer, "That is a bunch of malarkey."
Ryan lectured Biden, "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."
Talking over one another, each determined to show that the other isn't just misguided but dishonest, and often visibly irritable, Biden and Ryan reflected an acrimonious race that has left many Americans wanting better.
But the contrast with the more respectful posture adopted by the presidential candidates last week made Thursday night's exchange more honest about the nature of campaign 2012.
So it was fitting, if also a bit dispiriting, that when Raddatz ended the debate by citing her conversation with a soldier dismayed by the tone of the campaign, the two candidates used the opportunity to repeat some of their attack lines, Biden on "the 47 percent" and Ryan on "Obamacare" and spending.
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