DANVILLE, Ky.— The old lion tried to whup the young pup. He tried by sneering, laughing, smiling, snickering and interrupting. He yelled. He dropped his voice. He crossed his arms and threw himself back against his chair in frustration.
But the young one had a few tricks of his own. He kept his cool, stuck to his script, patiently explained things in his wonky way, and looked at his overwrought opponent with kindly concern.
Compared with the first presidential debate, Thursday’s encounter between Vice President Joe Biden and GOP nominee Paul Ryan was a rollicking roller coaster of a show. Two guys originally from crumbling industrial states, born nearly three decades apart, had come to Kentucky with different things to prove.
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Ryan, 42, needed to look like he could be president if need be, and Biden, 69, needed to put some wind back in the Democrats’ sails. Both needed to show they could appeal to regular folks, since that may not be a strength for the men at the top of the tickets — President Obama and Mitt Romney — who have unusual and slightly exotic personal histories.
Ryan had predicted this week that the vice president would come at him “like a cannonball.” He underestimated Biden, who came at him like a fusillade of cannonballs.
A boxing-style poster around town touted the “Thrill in the Ville,” and that’s exactly the impression the debate left on Democratic strategist Christopher Lehane. Biden, he said, “came charging out of the corner like Smokin' Joe Frazier, and never slowed down.” Ryan, he said, “was more of the counter-puncher” but didn’t allow himself to get trapped.
Lehane noticed that Biden addressed Ryan as “friend” right before attacking. “It was the equivalent of throwing a right jab to set up his left hook.”
“Ryan held his own,” said former Republican strategist Nicolle Wallace, who prepped Sarah Palin for her vice presidential debate with Biden four years ago. Though the vice president brought the passion the president lacked last week, she said, she thought Biden looked “a little nutty with all the eye-rolling and finger-wagging, but he brought all of the passion that Obama lacked last week.”
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Moderator Martha Raddatz, an ABC foreign correspondent, kept control of the debate stage -- and the pace -- in a way that had eluded Jim Lehrer during the presidential debate in Denver.
At first, Biden really seemed to be enjoying himself, while Ryan was very serious, though his hairstyle gives him a particularly boyish air, especially when he is juxtaposed with Biden, whose sons are Ryan’s age.
“It appeared that Biden didn’t really take the debate seriously until the last 30 minutes,” said Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, a jury selection and body language expert. His constant laughter, she said, “appeared very disrespectful to Ryan.”
By contrast, she said, “Ryan was very composed and comfortable.” His frequent sips of water, she said, “could have been the sign of nervousness.”
In the second half, particularly when the subject turned to Afghanistan and Obama’s plan to withdraw all American troops by the end of 2014, Biden’s joviality turned to anger, especially when Ryan suggested that U.S. troops should remain in a particularly dangerous region of Afghanistan rather than be pulled out.
“You'd rather Americans be going in and doing the job?” asked Biden, incredulity in his voice.
It was another one of those moments for Ryan in which he seemed unable to pivot to address Biden’s passion.
“Look,” he often interjected, as he tried to change the subject back to more comfortable turf.
But toward the end, when Raddatz directed the discussion to personal topics, Ryan’s preparation paid off. She asked the men about their Roman Catholic faith, which became an exchange about abortion.
In making the case against abortion except in the case of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother, Ryan brought up the ultrasound of his first child, a beating heart inside a fetus the size of a bean, which he said became his child’s nickname. Biden used the moment to warn that the next president would probably select two Supreme Court justices, who could put legal abortion in jeopardy.
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