By William M. Welch, USA TODAY
Vice President Biden, trying to restore the Democratic ticket's sagging momentum, and Republican rival Paul Ryan, seeking to continue his campaign's surge, faced off Thursday evening with heated exchanges over the economy and foreign policy.
Biden was combative from the start, making reference to Mitt Romney's videotaped statement to wealthy supporters that 47% of Americans don't pay taxes and don't take responsibility for their own lives, and a previous statement by Ryan that 30% are "takers."
He also pointed to the presidential nominee's statement four years ago that the federal government should let U.S. automakers go bankrupt rather than give them a bailout.
Ryan shot back that the administration has failed on the economy.
"Did they come in and inherit a tough situation? Absolutely," Ryan said. "But we're going in the wrong direction. ... The economy is barely limping along."
Ryan defended Romney's 47% remark with a reference to Biden's tendency to commit gaffes, saying the vice president should know that "sometimes words don't come out of your mouth the right way."
Biden responded that he always says what he means -- and so does Romney. Biden noted with glee that Ryan opposed Obama's economic stimulus program yet wrote to the administration seeking some of that money for his district. Ryan said he made the request for constituents.
The two engaged repeatedly on major issues including Medicare and Social Security. Biden didn't hesitate to interrupt Ryan to rebut his points, prompting Ryan to allude to Obama's initial debate performance that even he acknowledged later was weak. "I know you're under a lot of duress to make up for lost ground," Ryan said to Biden.
The two rivals started with a question about the attack on the U.S. compound at Benghazi, Libya, that left the American ambassador and three others dead. Biden called the attack "a tragedy" and pledged that the U.S. government will track down the perpetrators. "The president ... has led with a steady hand and clear vision," Biden said.
"Governor Romney is the opposite. The last thing we need now is another war." Ryan called the Libya incident "indicative of a broader problem," which he said was an "unraveling of the Obama foreign policy."
Biden declared after Ryan's first answer about Libya and foreign policy: "That's a bunch of malarkey. Not a single thing he has said is accurate."
He said Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, proposed and voted to cut embassy security by $300 million beyond what the administration wanted.
Ryan questioned whether security was adequate to defend Americans in Libya. Biden was quick to point to Romney's initial statement attacking the administration over Libya, even before it was known that the ambassador was dead. "Gov. Romney, before he knew the facts ... was out making a political statement that was panned by the media around the world," Biden said.
On another foreign hotspot, Ryan said the Obama administration "has no credibility" on Iran and supported watered-down sanctions. "You want to go to war?" Biden asked. Ryan answered, "We want to prevent war." Biden dismissed as inaccurate and "a bunch of stuff" the GOP ticket's charges that the administration has been lax in policies toward Iran. He said sanctions are "crippling" Iran. "We will not allow the Iranians to get a nuclear weapon," Biden said. "Iran is more isolated today than when we took office."
On the 11-year war in Afghanistan, Ryan said he and Romney agree with Obama's 2014 deadline for U.S. forces to leave but qualified it by saying "what we don't want to do is lose the gains we've got. ... We want to see the 2014 transition be successful." He said the Romney administration would "assess the situation" once in office and the U.S. should not tip its hand. Biden said the United States went into Afghanistan "for one reason: to get those people who killed Americans" on Sept. 11.
He said the U.S. and international forces "absolutely" will be out in 2014, and that in the meantime Afghan forces are being trained to defend their country.
"It's their responsibility to take over their own security," Biden said. He said it was important for the U.S. and its allies to make clear to Afghanistan that its own troops "must step up" and take on their own defense.
Ryan lamented that the U.S. is sending "fewer people' to fight in Afghanistan between now and the 2014 target date. Biden said that was correct because "we're sending more Afghans to do the job," and he questioned whether Ryan would prefer to risk U.S. lives.
On taxes, Ryan said Republicans would work with Democrats in Congress to lower federal income tax rates 20%, while denying many existing deductions used by taxpayers. He defended Romney against charges he will not specify the deductions he would target.
"What we're saying is here's our framework,'' Ryan said. Biden said the GOP ticket will keep loopholes for wealthy investors by taxing capital gains at lower rates than regular income. He said Ryan's proposal, to lower rates and still preserve some deductions, was "impossible'' to achieve without raising taxes on the middle class or growing deficits. Ryan, who has led GOP opposition in the House of Representatives to Obama administration programs, said Romney showed in Massachusetts that he can work with Democrats on taxes and other divisive issues.
Raddatz asked the candidates to speak in personal terms about how their religious faith had informed their views on abortion. Ryan recalled going for a sonogram of his first child when his wife was seven weeks pregnant. "I believe life begins at conception," he said. He said he is "pro-life" and a Romney-Ryan administration's policy "will be to oppose abortion with the exceptions of rape, incest and life of the mother."
Biden, a Roman Catholic like Ryan, said he accepts the church's opposition to abortion in his personal life but "I refuse to impose that ... on others, unlike my friend here the congressman." He said government shouldn't tell women what to do with their bodies. Biden said abortion rights are in jeopardy and hang in the balance with future Supreme Court nominees. Ryan said "we don't think unelected judges should make this decision" about whether abortion should be legal.
In brief closing statements, Biden said the administration "inherited a God-awful circumstance'' and has improved the economy. He again lashed at Romney's 47% remark.
"He's talking about my mother and father... He's taking about the people that built this country,'' Biden said.
Ryan said, "We face a very big choice - what kind of country are we going to be? ... President Obama had his chance and he made his choices.''
Biden, 69, from Delaware, is a long-time Washington insider who faced Sarah Palin on a similar stage four years ago. He came to the debate with an image as the wily but gaffe-prone veteran against the self-styled "young gun."
Ryan, 42, from Wisconsin, is a seven-term veteran of the House of Representatives. He has been a leader of his party's social and fiscal conservatives at the front lines of resisting President Obama's agenda.
Both men were under pressure from their supporters to deliver a strong performance after last week's initial debate between presidential nominees boosted Mitt Romney's campaign, allowing it to shrink or erase President Obama's lead in numerous national and state polls.
The vice presidential debate was held on the campus of Centre College in Danville, Ky., a small, historic liberal arts school. It has just 1,350 students but is known for the school's longstanding sports nickname, the Praying Colonels. It was the only scheduled face-to-face confrontation between the two vice presidential nominees before the election next month.
Their running mates face the second of three scheduled debates Tuesday in Hempstead, N.Y.
Obama, who hopes his No. 2 can reverse the slide that began with what he acknowledged was a disappointing debate performance a week ago, phoned Biden from Air Force One to wish him luck before the debate.
"Looking forward to it," Biden said as he headed to Kentucky. Ryan said beforehand that he relished the chance to take on the veteran, folksy Biden, a former senator from Delaware who often reminds voters of his working-class upbringing in Scranton, Pa
. "I'm not intimidated. I'm actually excited about it," Ryan said on CNN. The 90-minute debate was moderated by Martha Raddatz of ABC News. It was nationally televised and expected to be watched by tens of millions of people, though perhaps not equal to the 70 million that watched Biden face the controversial conservative Sarah Palin four years ago when she was the GOP's vice presidential nominee.