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Biden, Ryan clash in feisty vice presidential debate

Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan compete over a point in their debate in Danville, Ky. Between them is moderator Martha Raddatz.
(Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images)

Clashing in a feisty, hard-edged debate, Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday night repeatedly accused challenger Paul D. Ryan and his running mate, Mitt Romney, of favoring the rich at the expense of middle-class Americans and engaging in loose talk that could lead the country to another war.

Ryan responded by saying Biden and President Obama had failed to turn the country around economically and, lacking accomplishments, were engaged in the kind of distortion and scare tactics the president vilified when he sought the White House in 2008.

Photos: Biden and Ryan square off

The 90-minute session on the campus of Kentucky’s Centre College plowed much of the same ground as last week’s first presidential debate, with the two men differing over taxes, abortion policy and the administration’s record on jobs and the economy.

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But with a pugnacious Biden taking the stage in place of the often-diffident Obama, the result was a far livelier, more heated exchange, as the two candidates — but mostly Biden — interjected, interrupted and at times spoke over the moderator and drowned each other out.

The vice president entered the evening hoping to reverse the momentum Romney had built as a result of last week’s strong debate performance, something Ryan mentioned in urging his adversary at one point to back off.

National polls and surveys in several key battleground states have tightened since the Denver debate, though Obama still enjoys an edge in the contest for the electoral votes needed to win the White House.

“Mr. Vice President, I know you’re under a lot of duress to make up for lost ground,” Ryan said, “but I think people would be better-served if we don’t keep interrupting each other.”

Biden ignored him.

The vice president repeatedly brought up the secretly videotaped speech in which Romney referred to the 47% of Americans who paid no income tax last year as “victims” who were overly reliant on government. He described Romney as indifferent to those who had suffered during the “Great Recession” and cited the Republican’s opposition to the auto industry bailout which, Biden said, saved 1 million jobs.

“It shouldn’t be surprising for a guy who says 47% of the American people are unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives,” Biden said.

Defending his running mate, the Wisconsin congressman drew a laugh from the audience by alluding to Biden’s penchant for tripping over his own tongue. “I think the vice president very well knows that sometimes the words don’t come out of your mouth the right way,” Ryan said.

“But I always say what I mean. And so does Romney,” Biden shot back.

“If you heard that little soliloquy on 47% and you think he just made a mistake,” Biden added, “then … I’ve got a bridge to sell you.”

The debate got off to a combative start with a lengthy discussion of foreign policy and the attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. Ryan accused the Obama administration of failing to properly secure the outpost and then covering up the truth by blaming the incident on a mob incited by an anti-Islamic video.

“What we are watching on our TV screens is the unraveling of the Obama foreign policy, which is making the world more chaotic and us less safe,” Ryan said. He said the Obama administration had not done enough to speak out on behalf of activists during Iran’s street protests in 2009, to prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb, or to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“It projects weakness,” Ryan said, “and when we look weak, our adversaries are much more willing to test us, they’re more brazen in their attacks.”

Biden, smiling and repeatedly shaking his head, finally interrupted. “With all due respect, that’s a bunch of ... malarkey,” he said. “Not a single thing he said is accurate.”

The vice president said the administration had revised its account of the Libya attacks as the facts became clearer and noted that the spending plan Ryan drafted as chairman of the House Budget Committee proposed cutting embassy security by $300 million below what the administration had requested.

“This talk about … weakness, I don’t understand what my friend’s talking about here,” Biden said, accusing Romney and Ryan of minimizing the effectiveness of economic sanctions against Iran and offering irresponsible “loose talk” and chest-beating rhetoric.

“The last thing America needs is to get in another ground war in the Middle East, requiring tens of thousands, if not well over 100,000 American forces,” Biden said.

Rather than standing behind twin lecterns, the two were seated at a table facing moderator Martha Raddatz, a veteran ABC News foreign correspondent, who tried to guide the discussion by alternating questions about domestic and foreign policy.

Both men are skilled debaters, though the 69-year-old Biden — who twice ran for president and spent decades in the U.S. Senate before becoming vice president — was obviously more practiced than the 42-year-old Ryan.

In an exchange over income taxes, Ryan sought to explain how Romney intended to cut taxes across the board by 20%, but make up for the lost revenue by closing loopholes and ending deductions.

“Can I translate?” Biden interrupted.

“We want to work with Congress on how best to achieve this,” Ryan resumed.

Raddatz asked whether Ryan could “guarantee this math will add up?”

“Absolutely,” Ryan responded, but Biden repeatedly cut in, insisting it was mathematically impossible.

Ryan said he and Romney were presenting a broad framework for their tax plan, and alluded to the example of Republican President Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill working together. Romney, he noted, had worked as governor with Democratic legislators in Massachusetts to achieve bipartisan results.

“If he did such a great job, why isn’t he even contesting Massachusetts?” Biden scoffed, alluding to the fact that Romney is far behind in the polls in his former state.

Throughout the night, Ryan asserted that Obama had failed to live up to his promises of four years ago: to cut the cost of healthcare, reduce the nation’s debt and change the toxic nature of today’s politics.

Ryan contrasted the Obama seeking reelection with the one who ran in 2008.

“You have a president who ran for president four years ago promising hope and change, who has now turned his campaign into attack, blame and defame,” Ryan said. “You see, if you don’t have a good record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone to run from. That was what President Obama said in 2008. It’s what he’s doing right now.”

In one of the quieter moments, the two explained the role their Roman Catholic faith played in their views on abortion.

“I believe that life begins at conception. … Those are the reasons why I’m pro-life,” said Ryan, adding that “the policy of a Romney administration will be to oppose abortions with the exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother” — even though Ryan personally opposes exceptions for rape and incest.

Biden said he, too, accepted the Catholic notion that “life begins at conception.”

“But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews, and I just refuse to impose that on others,” Biden said. “Unlike my friend here, the congressman, I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that women — they can’t control their body. It’s a decision between them and their doctor.”

Historically, vice presidential debates have had little lasting consequence. The putdown of Dan Quayle as “no Jack Kennedy” in 1988 and Bob Dole’s acid remark in 1976 about troops killed in “Democrat wars” have been two of the more memorable moments in the undercard matchups; neither, though, affected the outcome of their races.

The impact of Thursday night’s debate could be further mitigated by the size of the audience. Unlike the presidential face-off, the session competed for TV viewers with a pair of Major League Baseball playoff games and an NFL clash between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Tennessee Titans.

mark.barabak@latimes.com

maeve.reston@latimes.com


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