Biden, Ryan trade sharp words on foreign policy, economy during vice-presidential debate

Vice President Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan clashed over Libya, Afghanistan and the economy in the campaign’s only vice-presidential debate Thursday, interrupting and re-interrupting one another during a 90-minute exchange shaped by Biden’s aggressive tone.

Ryan picked up themes used by his running mate, Mitt Romney, in last week’s presidential debate. He criticized the Obama Administration for its handling of an attack in Libya, and accused it of dodging hard questions about the debt.

“That’s what we get in this administration: speeches. But we’re not getting leadership,” Ryan said.

But the debate’s dominant voice was Biden’s. The vice president was assertive in a way that President Obama had not been, chuckling in seeming exasperation several times at Ryan’s arguments, and interrupting the Republican in mid-argument. He had the night’s most memorable one-liners, calling Ryan’s arguments “malarkey,” “loose talk,” and “a bunch of stuff.”

But, at times, Biden’s tone edged toward dismissive. In a few instances, he cut off his counterpart multiple times in the same answer. Eventually, Ryan seemed frustrated with the cacophony of the two talking over each other.

“Mr. Vice President, I know you’re under a lot of duress to make up for lost ground,” Ryan said. “But I think people would be better served if we didn’t keep interrupting each other.”

The two continued their strong exchange until the end of the 90-minute debate, using strong words in their closing statements.

“You’ve probably detected my frustration with their attitude about the American people,” Biden said, again referring to Romney’s 47 percent comment. “He’s talking about my mother and father. He’s talking about the places I grew up.”

Ryan said, “President Obama he had his chance. He made his choices.”

One of Ryan’s best early moments came in response to the debate’s first question, about the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the U.S. ambassador and three others. Ryan recounted how the White House’s account of the attack had shifted, and cast it as a signal of a broader problem.

“What we are watching on our TV screens is the unraveling of the Obama foreign policy, which is making…us less safe,” Ryan said.

For Biden, the sharpest moment may have been when he picked up on the theme that President Obama did not touch in the first presidential debate. He recalled a Romney speech that was secretly recorded, in which the Republican candidate described 47 percent of Americans as people who considered themselves primarily victims.

“I’ve had it up to here with this notion that, ‘Forty-seven percent, it’s about time they take some sort of responsibility here,’” Biden said.

Ryan responded with a quip that played on Biden’s reputation for verbal gaffes.

“Mitt Romney’s a good man. He cares about 100 percent of Americans in this country,” Ryan said. “I think the vice president very well knows that sometimes, the words don’t come out of your mouth the right way.”

At another point, when Biden labeled Ryan’s answer about a question on Iran “a bunch of stuff,” moderator Martha Raddatz asked what he meant.

Ryan jumped in.

“It’s Irish,” he said, drawing laughter from both the moderator and Biden himself.

Ryan, at times, was in the uncomfortable position of having to defend vagueness. In a discussion about Afghanistan, he demurred on setting a timeline for withdrawing military forces, saying it would only embolded U.S. enemies. And, in a discussion of Romney’s tax plan, Ryan defended his campaign’s refusal to spell out specifics about the tax breaks they’d eliminate.

“We actually want to have big bipartisan agreements,” Ryan said, and that wasn’t possible if Romney laid out all his demands ahead of time.

Their debate began at 9 p.m. at Centre College in Danville, Ky. Beforehand, both men had prepared elaborately, turning themselves into fact-stuffed human symbols of the two most data-driven campaigns in modern history.

Each spent days sequestered with aides pretending to be their opponent and moderator Martha Raddatz. Biden’s team even built a fake debate set.

All for just 90 minutes onstage.

Away from small-town Danville, the rest of the 2012 campaign rolled on Thursday. In Montreat, N.C., Romney had a 30-minute meeting with famed evangelist Billy Graham, 93. It was the first time that Romney had met Graham, who has led religious revivals for more than 50 years and met with every U.S. president since Harry Truman.

The meeting was closed to reporters, but photographers and television producers were permitted to record its final moments. The two discussed the death of George Romney , the candidate’s father, whom Billy Graham knew.

Graham then asked Romney what he could do to help.

“Prayer is the most helpful thing you can do for me,” Romney said. “And what you’re planning, what your son has shown me is going to be very, very helpful. And I appreciate that. It’s going to be terrific.”

Graham, Franklin Graham and Romney then prayed and as the meeting ended, campaign aides said that Graham told Romney: “I’ll do all I can to help you. And you can quote me on that.” However, aides did not respond to requests for clarification about what Romney meant regarding Franklin Graham’s plans.

President Obama, for his part, spoke in Miami, and criticized Romney for the more moderate tone he has taken in recent weeks.

“He’s trying to go through an extreme makeover,” Obama said. “After running for more than a year in which he called himself ‘severely conservative,’ Mitt Romney is trying to convince you that he was severely kidding.”

Also, Obama’s campaign continued to face criticism over the administration’s handling of the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

The administration has repeatedly revised its account of what happened, and who was behind the attack. But in an interview on CNN, campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter suggested that the Libya attack had become a major issue because Republicans had politicized it.

“The entire reason that this has become the political topic it is, is because of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan,” Cutter said.

Romney, at a campaign event in Asheville, N.C., shot back: “No, President Obama, it’s an issue because this is the first time in 33 years that a United States Ambassador has been assassinated … This is an issue because the American people wonder why it took so long for your administration to admit that this was a terrorist attack.”

In Danville, the debate featured two Washington veterans with sharply different styles. Biden is often emotional and personal, making points with anecdotes instead of numbers. Ryan, the House Budget committee chairman, seems to think at a higher and more removed elevation: he stresses trend lines, disasters a few decades out.

Neither had faced a debate quite like this one. In 2008, Biden had a much different opponent in then-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin (R), who had little experience in national politics.

This is the ninth vice-presidential debates since 1976. Historically, they have had little impact on polls, or the outcome of the election. Even the most famous iterations–like the 1988 debate, in which Democrat Lloyd Bentsen cut down Republican Dan Quayle with the line, “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”— did nothing reduce the Republican lead in polls.

But this year, both campaigns saw the vice presidential debate as a potential turning point.

In the first presidential debate last week, Romney had managed to un-do weeks of frustration in a single night. He looked sharp, energized, and in command of numbers and policies. Obama, by contrast, looked tired and unfocused.

Afterward, for the first time in months, the Republican edged slightly ahead in some national polls. Obama, however, still seems to hold an advantage in the swing states that will actually decide the electoral college.

On Thursday night, Ryan hoped to extend the surge that Romney started. But he faced a delicate task: Ryan has built his own career around specific, strongly conservative ideas for the budget and programs like Medicare.

Romney has said he will not adopt Ryan’s ideas wholesale. But Biden was expected to try to seize on Ryan’s budget anyway, to support attacks that the Republican ticket is too conservative.

For Biden, the night’s task was to project the energy that Obama lacked, without stumbling into a verbal gaffe.

To prepare, Biden spent three days rehearsing at a hotel in Wilmington, Del., with nights spent at home with his family in the same city. His routine consisted of morning policy sessions, and afternoon mock debates against Ryan stand-in Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and further briefings in the evening.

Biden communications director Shailagh Murray, a former Washington Post reporter, played the role of moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC, a campaign official said.

For Ryan, the lead-up to the debate included three days of “debate camp” in Wintergreen, Va. as well as two days this week in St. Petersburg, Fla. He has held multiple mock debates against former solicitor general Ted Olson, his Biden stand-in. Former Massachusetts lieutenant governor Kerry Healey (R) has served as moderator.

THE WASHINGTON POST

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