DANVILLE, Ky. — Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan pummeled one another over Medicare, the federal budget, and foreign policy on Thursday in their sole debate, less than a month before an election in which voting already has begun in key states.
Mr. Biden was the aggressor from the outset, challenging his opponent’s assertions, interrupting him, and frequently smiling and laughing with incredulity throughout Mr. Ryan’s answers.
At one point, Mr. Ryan felt compelled to tell the vice president to allow him to finish his answers. Mr. Biden was undeterred.
Their clash occurred as the moderator, ABC’s Martha Raddatz, asked Mr. Biden to explain the Obama Administration’s sometimes conflicting explanations of the attack in Libya a month ago that led to the deaths of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador. The vice president acknowledged the confusion surrounding a terrorist attack first blamed on reaction to an anti-Muslim videotape.
“We will make clear to the American people, because whatever mistakes were made will not be made again,’’ he said before a quick pivot to a series of criticisms of Mitt Romney’s positions on Iraq, Afghanistan, and other foreign policy issues.
“The President has led with a steady and clear vision; Governor Romney the opposite,’’ he said. “The last thing we need now is another war.’
Mr. Ryan said that the attack in Benghazi, Libya, was “part of a larger problem,’’ contending that it was evidence of a broad credibility problem he blamed on the Obama Administration.
‘‘What we are watching on our TV screens is the unraveling of the Obama foreign policy,’’ he said, “which is making the world more chaotic and less safe.’’
Mr. Ryan sharply criticized the Obama-Biden approach to Iran, contending that its sanctions had been ineffective in keeping Tehran from a march toward nuclear capability.
“They’re moving faster toward a nuclear weapon. It’s because the administration has no credibility on this issue,’’ Mr. Ryan said.
Mr. Biden dismissed the attack as “all this bluster,’’ and insisted that his opponents had not suggested any specifics on what they would do differently.
“All this loose talk, what are they talking about,’’ he said. “ ... we will not let them acquire a nuclear weapon period — unless he’s talking about going to war.’’
The two also clashed sharply on the future of Medicare and federal spending and taxes.
Mr. Biden derided Mr. Ryan’s budget proposals, including their consequences for Medicare was inevitable for a topic that the Obama campaign had regarded as a gift ever since Mr. Romney chose him as his political partner this summer. In the 2010 mid-term elections, Republicans scored points in race after race with their assault on the fact that the Affordable Health Care Act diverts $716 million from the anticipated growth of Medicare spending over the next 10 years. The bulk of that sum represents savings from otherwise anticipated payments to health-care providers.
Mr. Ryan repeated that criticism last night, as he resisted Mr. Biden’s efforts to cast him and his ticket as a threat to Medicare benefits.
Mr. Ryan defended his advocacy of a shift to a premium support, or voucher system for future recipients, now age 55 or younger. Under that concept, private plans would exist alongside a traditional Medicare option.
Mr. Biden insisted that would shortchange the middle class. Mr. Ryan countered that Medicare costs are already on a path to breaking the budget and without significant reforms will not be there for younger citizens in any case.
Thursday night’s encounter brought a heightened focus in the aftermath of Mr. Romney’s poll-moving performance against a subdued President Obama in their initial face-off in Denver. In an ABC television interview Wednesday, Mr. Obama seconded the consensus view that he had had “a bad night.’’
If Mr. Obama was criticized for being insufficiently aggressive, Mr. Biden seemed determined to make up for it.
In a conference call with reporters hours before the debate, his campaign seemed eager to change the subject from Mr. Obama’s performance last week as Campaign Manager Jim Messina and other staffers pointed to their grass roots strength as a bulwark against eroding poll numbers.
“Every morning, the first thing I read are numbers,” Mr. Messina said. “Not poll numbers, the numbers that mean something to me: registered voters, ballots requested, and early votes cast.”
The Democrats noted that in one swing state after another, their field work had yielded registration and early voting numbers ahead of the pace of their vaunted 2008 grass-roots efforts.
Still, national and state-by-state polling numbers have been chastening to the Democrats since Air Force One left Denver. Mr. Obama is for the first time trailing in the national averages compiled by RealClearPolitics and TalkingPointsMemo and results have tightened in the key battlegrounds.
An NBC/Wall Street Journal Marist poll released Wednesday showed Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney essentially tied in Florida, but a poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research found the Republican with a startling seven point lead there — 51 percent to 44 percent. The Republican has made less startling gains in states including Colorado, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin.
Mr. Obama has seen erosion in his Ohio numbers as well. Two recent surveys, from Rasmussen and Survey USA showed the state essentially tied but the latest Marist survey as well as an earlier CNN poll continued to show him with a small but significant lead.
It’s conceivable that Thursday night’s exchanges could change the momentum, but its effects were likely to be overshadowed by the next top-of-the-ticket match-up, when Mr. Obama and Mr Romney meet next week at Hofstra University in New York.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. James O’Toole is politics editor at the Post-Gazette.
Contact James O’Toole at email@example.com or 412-263-1562.