In a battle of understudies, Vice President Joe Biden and Republican rival Paul Ryan went after one another repeatedly Thursday night on issues ranging from the fate of Medicare to the terrorist attack on U.S. diplomats in Libya.
Both men were assertive, eager to trumpet the strengths of their tickets and equally zealous in ripping the other party.
Ryan was aggressive from the outset, challenging the Obama administration's first accounts of the Libya attacks, which at first claimed that an anti-Muslim video inflamed a crowd rather than calling it a terrorist attack. He noted that President Barack Obama referred to the video six times in a speech to the United Nations after the Libya attack.
"This is becoming more troubled by the day," Ryan said of the still-emerging details of what the administration knew in those first days after the attack. Ryan said it was "indicative of a broader problem . . . the unraveling of the Obama foreign policy."
Biden defended the administration's response, saying it relied on intelligence reports that turned out to be false. "We will get to the bottom of it," he said.
Ryan, the fresh-faced congressman who had never debated on the national stage despite his 14 years in the House, betrayed no signs of nervousness about the showdown with Biden, a veteran of 36 years of Senate debates.
Their meeting, televised nationally from Centre College, was moderated by Martha Raddatz of ABC. The candidates sat at a table, fielding domestic and foreign policy questions.
Debates by vice presidential candidates usually have little effect on elections, but Thursday's took on added significance after Obama's lackluster debate debut on Oct. 3.
Since then, Romney has pulled even with Obama in national polls and closed the gap in several battleground states.
In Florida, Romney opened up a 7 point lead, according to a new Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9/Miami Herald poll. Obama has a 1 percentage point edge over Romney in a new NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll of likely voters, released Thursday. The margin was the same as before the Obama-Romney debate. In Ohio, Obama leads by 6 points. He had led by 8. And in Virginia, Obama was up 2, but Romney is now ahead by 1.
With just one debate, Biden and Ryan bounced back and forth from domestic to foreign policy.
Biden used a question about the nation's unemployment rate to criticize taped comments by Romney in which he disparaged 47 percent of Americans as non-taxpaying freeloaders. Biden accused Romney of saying he'd let housing foreclosures hit bottom.
In one of the more personal exchanges, Ryan told how Romney helped a family hit by injuries pay for college, and how he gives more than 30 percent of his income to charity -- more than Biden and Ryan combined.
"Mitt Romney is a good man," Ryan said.
Referring to the criticism Romney's received about the 47 percent comment, Ryan said, "He cares about 100 percent of the Americans."
Noting Biden's own tendency for gaffes, Ryan joked that "sometimes the words don't come out of your mouth the right way."
Biden, noting that his daughter and first wife were killed in a car accident four decades ago, said he understood the impact of tragedy. Of Romney, he said, "I don't doubt his personal commitment to individuals. But I know he had no commitment to the automobile industry."
Romney opposed the government bailout of Chrysler and General Motors. Both automakers are now on firmer financial ground.
Biden was animated throughout the debate, at turns smiling and laughing, as well as grimacing in response to Ryan's answers to Raddatz's questions. The vice president interrupted as Ryan criticized the administration's Middle East policy.
"That's a bunch of malarkey," Biden said, subsequently suggesting that Ryan's remarks were "a bunch of stuff."
When Raddatz gave him a quizzical look, Biden told her, "It's simply inaccurate."
Ryan offered, "It's Irish."
Both men are Irish Catholics.
They tangled on Iran, with Ryan charging that Iran is "racing toward" developing nuclear weapons and that the administration dragged its feet to impose sanctions it now says are working to deter the regime. "When Barack Obama was elected, they had enough nuclear material to make one bomb. Now they have enough for five," Ryan said.
Biden accused Republicans of "bluster" and "loose talk" and asked Ryan what else could be done beyond the "most crippling sanctions in the history of sanctions." He asked whether Ryan was saying that he'd back a war with Iran.
"How are they going to prevent war if there's nothing more they say we should do than we've already done," Biden said. "We feel quite confident we could deal a serious blow to the Iranians."
Heading into the debate, the two campaigns clashed repeatedly in ever tougher tones since the first presidential debate shook up the race.
Most notably, Romney has appeared to stake out or emphasize more moderate parts of his agenda, and the Obama-Biden campaign has all but accused the Romney-Ryan ticket of lying to paper over the more conservative message that Romney used to win his party's nomination.
Among the top issues, the campaigns disagree sharply on several fronts:
_On abortion, Romney caused a stir this week when he told the Des Moines Register that there was "no legislation with regards to abortion" that would become part of his agenda. Romney has said he would sign legislation limiting abortion if it ever reached his desk, though he said in the 2008 campaign that that is unlikely anytime soon, given the divided nature of U.S. politics on the subject.
He also has said he would sign an executive order to ban the use of U.S. foreign aid to pay for abortions overseas and would end federal aid to Planned Parenthood.
Ryan has gone further, saying abortion should only be legal when a woman's life is at risk, and he co-sponsored a bill with Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., that would have redefined rape with respect to abortions. But when he joined the ticket, Ryan said that Romney would set policy for the administration.
Obama supports abortion rights without any restrictions such as requiring a minor to notify a parent before an abortion.
_On Medicare, Obama wants to retain the traditional system, relying on the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to extend the life of the program by raising fees, and shaving $716 billion from anticipated payments to health care providers.
Ryan accuses Obama of looking to loot Medicare of $716 billion to help pay for the health care law, but Ryan used the same $716 billion in savings in the 10-year budget he proposed as chairman of the House Budget Committee. He's since backtracked from his plan, and Romney insists he'd return the money to Medicare.
Romney vows to repeal Obama's health care act and would replace the system. Starting in 2023, he'd give people checks to buy Medicare or private insurance. He's said his plan is more efficient and allows seniors to make their own choices. Ryan had proposed a similar plan that would cap the amount of those government checks, or vouchers, but Romney would not cap them.
Obama said Romney's plan would see healthier individuals being covered by private insurance companies, leaving the most ill and vulnerable with a frayed Medicare system.
_On taxes, Obama wants to raise taxes on incomes above $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for families.
Romney promises to cut tax rates across the board, which by itself would add nearly $5 trillion to the deficit, according to an independent analysis. Romney denies that it would cost that much, noting at the last debate that he would propose unspecified offsets, such as limits on deductions that would ensure that wealthier Americans end up paying the same share of the country's taxes as they do now.
By Lesley Clark and Steven Thomma - McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
(c)2012 McClatchy Washington Bureau
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