Biden puts the fire back into Obama's re-election campaign

 

Danville, Kentucky

Paul Ryan and Joe Biden yesterday fanned out to the vital battleground state of Ohio, each seeking to capitalise on their rambunctious and compelling vice-presidential debate here, generally judged to have been – in football parlance – a high scoring draw.

In their 90-minute match-up each did what he had to do. Mr Biden thrilled Democrats by doing what Mr Obama so conspicuously failed to in his encounter with Mitt Romney last week. He took the battle to Republicans, challenging Mr Ryan at every turn, from foreign policy to health care and the economy, even on the delicate and highly personal issue of abortion.

But the Republican, who is 27 years Mr Biden's junior, would not be browbeaten, scoring several sharp hits of his own in his first appearance on so daunting a national stage. He also avoided any major mistake that might have taken the wind out of Mr Romney's sails, when the latter has drawn even in national and state polls, even taking a slight lead in some.

On the issues, both Mr Ryan and the vice-president set out the positions of their respective campaigns that offer American voters one of the starkest choices of any recent election. But their styles were very different.

Mr Ryan was more measured and analytical, as befits a fiscal expert and chairman of the House Budget Committee; Mr Biden came across as a mixture of weathered elder statesman and folksy attack dog. Frequently interrupting his opponent, he smirked and smiled, sometimes breaking into sardonic laughter to emphasise his dismissal of what his opponent was saying. "With all due respect, that's a bunch of malarkey," was Mr Biden's response when Mr Ryan condemned "the unravelling of Obama foreign policy" laid bare by recent events in the Middle East.

Post-debate reactions mirrored that contrast. "These guys have been peddling shell games and lies," Maryland's Democratic governor Martin O'Malley said of the Republican candidates, "and Biden called them out." Republicans focussed more on Mr Biden's demeanour, arguing he had damaged his own side.

Karl Rove, the former top strategist of George W. Bush, compared the vice-president's laughter with Al Gore's sighs during his debate against Mr Bush in 2000, for which the former was widely criticised. Minutes after the debate was over, the Republican National Committee released an online video, "Laughing at the Issues."

On one thing most commentators were agreed, the raucous proceedings in Danville were great entertainment. How many minds will have been changed is another matter. Historically, vice-presidential debates have been a B-feature. The snap verdicts were mixed.

A CNN instant survey of registered voters had Mr Ryan the narrow victor by 48 to 44 per cent, but a similar exercise by the CBS network had Mr Biden a convincing winner. The latest crop of polls confirms that the presidential race is neck and neck, not only at a national level, but in the handful of battleground states, above all Ohio, Florida and Virginia, where the result on November 6 will be determined.

Intrade, the predictions market which has an impressive record tracking US elections, yesterday put the likelihood of an Obama win at 63 per cent, down from almost 80 cent before the president's poor showing in his first debate and the ensuing poll boost for Mitt Romney.

The focus now shifts to the next presidential debate, at Hofstra University on Long Island, New York next Tuesday. Mr Obama took yesterday off from the campaign trail to hone what is sure to be a more aggressive performance than last week, when he let many dubious assertions by Mr Romney pass without objection, to the dismay of his supporters. For a few days that void has been filled by Mr Biden's feisty performance here.

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