Joe Biden reacts during the vice presidential debate with Paul D. Ryan in… (Scott Eells / Bloomberg )
DANVILLE, Ky. — Vice President Joe Biden was either a happy warrior or a smirking boor, but his demeanor in the vice presidential debate with Rep. Paul D. Ryan dominated talk among campaign surrogates afterward as Democrats expressed glee over Biden's irreverent performance and Republicans expressed a combination of shock and puzzlement.
“Biden was a happy warrior tonight,” Obama-Biden campaign manager Jim Messina said over and over in the “spin alley” that has become a fixture of political debates. “He was a happy warrior for the middle class.”
But one man's happy warrior was another man's buffoon.
TRANSCRIPT: Read the arguments
As the Romney-Ryan campaign staff watched the debate Thursday night, spokesman Michael Steel said, “I think there was a lot of incredulity. What is he doing? Why is he doing that? .... There were a couple of times when it just seemed really inappropriate.”
Steel said Ryan had expected Biden to interrupt him, and had prepared for that, but “the laughter was certainly not something we expected.”
The take from Beau Biden, the vice president's son: “He was having fun.… Look, my father was enjoying himself, and he was in command of the stage.” But Republican campaign aide Dan Senor said Biden was “just trying to create distractions.” He called it “bizarre” and “stunning.”
The spin alley for Thursday’s debate was far from glamorous — a room in an athletic center where media were headquartered.
It will come as no surprise that the unanimous consensus among Democratic surrogates was that Biden won the debate, hands down, while Republican surrogates said the slam-dunk winner was Ryan. Few Democrats were willing to concede that Biden felt any pressure to compensate for what was widely viewed as a lackluster performance by President Obama last week in his debate with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Still, Maryland's Democratic governor, Martin O'Malley, laughed when he was asked why Obama had not been as forceful last week as Biden was on Thursday. “Because we want to finish strong,” he said.
DEBATE QUIZ: Who said it?
O'Malley may have earned the prize for most colorful language in his defense of Biden and attacks on Republicans. Sweeping his hand at the forest of red signs denoting Republican surrogates in the room — they clearly outnumbered Democrats — O'Malley said, “These are the guys who put their ideological, partisan Ayn Rand devotions ahead of the best interests of the economy and our jobs recovery, so I thought the vice president called them out. Frankly, I think these guys deserve to be laughed at.” As he warmed up, he went on to deride Ryan and Romney for representing the “ideological, abhorrent strain of the once-proud party of Lincoln.”
Generally speaking, Democrats jumped on Ryan's responses on Afghanistan and on the GOP plans for an across-the-board tax cut; Republicans, when they weren't talking about Biden's grin, zeroed in on the Medicare debate and on what they perceived as Ryan's ability to go toe-to-toe with Biden on foreign affairs.
“What I saw is someone who’s smart, with ideas, energy … and knowledgeable,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said of Ryan. “No one can come out of this debate and say Paul Ryan doesn’t have a strong command of the facts.”