Vice President Joe Biden and the man who wants to succeed him, Republican Paul Ryan, clashed in a feisty debate over foreign and economic policy as Biden sought to make up for President Barack Obama's lacklustre performance last week against his opponent, Mitt Romney.
The two went head-to-head over the Obama administration's policy in Libya and Iran in the opening minutes of a contentious vice presidential debate today, with Ryan citing it as evidence that it is weakening America's standing in the world.
It only grew more heated as the candidates sniped at each other over Afghanistan and Syria, as well as the slow economy, taxes and the government health care program for the elderly. It was a combative performance on both sides, with both men repeatedly interrupting each other and the moderator too.
"That's a bunch of malarkey,'' Biden retorted twice. The vice president also referred to Ryan's statements as "a bunch of stuff.''
The stakes aren't generally this high in vice presidential debates, but Biden was under pressure to restore energy to the Democratic campaign less than a month before the November 6 election. Ryan, a congressman from Wisconsin who at 42 is a generation younger than his opponent, fought to hold on to the Republicans' sudden rise in the polls that followed the Obama-Romney debate.
Today's debate at a small college in Kentucky was everything that the presidential one was not: substantive and contentious. Biden, seeking to be aggressive but running the risk of appearing childish, rolled his eyes and laughed in disbelief at some of Ryan's statements.
"I know you're under a lot of duress to make up for lost ground,'' Ryan said at one point, "but I think people would be better served if we don't keep interrupting each other.''
The two went at each other seconds into the debate, with Ryan saying the Sept. 11 death of the US ambassador in an attack at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was evidence that the administration's foreign policy was unraveling.
Biden reminded viewers that Obama was willing to chase the September 11 terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden to the end of the earth, and he quoted Romney as essentially saying he wouldn't have done the same.
On Iran, Biden defended current sanctions as the toughest ones in history, while Ryan said Obama has allowed Iran to get four years closer to building a nuclear weapon, and accused the White House of ignoring the warnings of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and not standing up for its chief ally.
The candidates disagreed on Syria, with Ryan accusing the administration of inaction and saying it was outsourcing foreign policy to the United Nations. Biden said the last thing the U.S. needs is another ground war in the Middle East, and that if Ryan and Romney want to send troops to Syria they should just say so.
Ryan agreed with Obama's plan to transition out of Afghanistan by 2014, but said that publicising the date for withdrawal amounted to exposing weakness.
Unlike Biden, Ryan is not a foreign policy expert but stood his ground in territory that is more familiar to the veteran senator and former chairman of the Senate of Foreign Relations Committee. The two also argued over the poor state of the US economy, with Biden saying Republicans must take responsibility for obstructing the economic recovery.
The slow economy has been the dominant issue of the U.S. election, and Ryan cited high unemployment numbers as evidence that there is no recovery under way.
Twenty-three million are struggling to work, he said, and 15 percent of the country is living in poverty. "This is not what a real recovery looks like,'' the congressman said.
In turn, the pressure was on for Biden to go where Obama did not in his own debate.
He quickly did so, citing Romney's opposition to the administration's successful auto industry bailout, and noting that it was not surprising given the Republican's recent videotaped comment in which he was heard saying that 47 percent of Americans view themselves as victims who depend on the government and refuse to take responsibility for their lives.
"These people are my mom and dad,'' Biden said.
Last week's presidential debate erased Obama's advantage and boosted Romney nationally and more importantly in such battleground states as Ohio. That is especially relevant as the U.S. president is not elected by a nationwide popular vote, but in a series of state-by-state contests.
About 41 states are seen as essentially already decided for Romney or Obama, leaving nine up for grabs, including Ohio. No Republican has ever won the White House without carrying that state.
The 90-minute debate the only vice presidential one, was moderated by Martha Raddatz, senior foreign affairs correspondent for ABC News.
Romney and Obama meet again on Tuesday for a town hall-style debate in Hempstead, New York. Their third and last debate is scheduled October 22 in Boca Raton, Florida.