Advantage: Biden, mostly


In a debate that lacked a knockout punch, Vice President Joe Biden delivered the passion and bare-knuckled aggression Thursday night that President Obama woefully lacked in the first debate. That gave Democrats the spark they needed after a poll-moving debate performance by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney last week.

Mr. Biden dominated the 90-minute slugfest against the younger, greener Rep. Paul Ryan, laying out the Republican ticket's inability to explain in detail a budget that proposes to cut taxes, reduce the deficit, and boost defense spending. The vice president mocked Mr. Ryan's criticism of stimulus spending by noting that the Wisconsin congressman twice requested money for his home state.

At the same time, in his first national debate, the 42-year-old Mr. Ryan kept his cool and usually held his own against his 69-year-old opponent, calling the Obama Administration's sanctions against Iran ineffective and even telling the vice president that Americans would be better served if Mr. Biden would stop interrupting. He didn't. Still, after Mr. Obama's limp performance last week, Democrats had more to cheer than Republicans.

The overriding political question: Which candidate did more to persuade undecided voters, especially in key battleground states such as Ohio? Or does the vice presidential debate even matter?

Mr. Biden's blustering attacks, derisive sneers, contempuous laughter, and condescending remarks could make him appear like a cranky old man, especially to younger viewers. Mr. Ryan's suggestive pause and evasive reply, after moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News asked whether voters who support legal abortion should worry about the GOP ticket, could damage efforts to reach independents, especially suburban women.

In their sole debate, both candidates ignored or deflected a question about how they view negative campaign ads. That's too bad. They should have said they are embarrassed by the misleading mudslinging that dominates political campaigns and advertising, and then promised to do better.

Doing that, however, would mean taking responsibility for the increasingly coarse and inane tone of American politics. That's something no candidate appears willing to do.