Biden, Ryan spar over Libya, Iraq, terrorism
Vice President Joe Biden, left, listens to Congressman Paul Ryan during the Vice Presidential Debate at Centre College in Danville, Ky. Mark Cornelison | Lexington Herald-Leader
Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin each went immediately on the attack at the opening of their debate on Thursday night, sparring over Libya, Iraq and terrorism.
Responding to a question on the fatal attack last month on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, Biden assailed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney on a range of national security matters.
"Whatever mistakes were made will not be made again," Biden said of the attack in Libya before pivoting to Romney's support of the war in Iraq.
Biden credited President Barack Obama for ending the Iraq war, saying Romney thought "we should have left 30,000 troops there." He faulted Romney for objecting early on to Obama's setting a 2014 deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and for saying he "wouldn't move heaven and earth" to capture Osama bin Laden.
Ryan, the Republican nominee for vice president, said he mourned the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in the Libya attack, then criticized Obama's response to the attack.
"It took the president two weeks to acknowledge that this was a terrorist attack," the Wisconsin congressman said.
Ryan said a Romney administration would provide Marines protecting an outpost like the one in Benghazi.
"If we're hit by terrorists, we're going to call it for what it is - a terrorist attack," he said.
Ryan also castigated Obama's administration for its evolving accounts of the Libya attack. "This is becoming more troubling by the day," he said.
The opening exchange in the 90-minute debate at Centre College in Danville, Ky., came after moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News asked Biden whether there was a "massive intelligence failure" in the Libya incident.
With polls showing a spike in support for Romney over the last week, the stakes were high for Biden. He faced pressure to undo damage inflicted on the Democratic ticket by Obama with his flat performance in the debate with Romney last week in Denver; Obama later called it a "bad night."
For Ryan, the debate was a chance to build on the momentum that Romney has gained.
After weeks of preparation, the rival running mates were braced for a combative encounter split between domestic and foreign affairs. Rather than a formal setting of twin lecterns, the two were seated at a table with Raddatz, a veteran foreign correspondent.
Both candidates faced pitfalls.
An imperative for Biden was to avert the sort of gaffes that have knocked Obama's campaign off-stride several times - most recently, his comment that the middle class had been "buried" for the last four years. Many Democrats hoped that Biden would be more forceful than Obama was last week in attacking Romney and arguing the case for the president's re-election.
Biden, 69, served as a U.S. senator from Delaware for 36 years, with stints as chairman of the Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees.
For Ryan, 42, Thursday's debate provided a forum to show he could step in as president, if needed. But a key goal was to avoid statements like the ones in his Republican convention speech that drew poor marks from nonpartisan fact checkers and gave Democrats fodder against the Republican ticket on the auto industry bailout and other topics.
Also challenging for Ryan: How to navigate between the conservative agenda that he has championed in Congress and the more moderate tone that Romney has tried to strike in appeals to swing voters.
As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan has been the Republican Party's leading voice on fiscal matters. The austere federal budget proposals that he authored have been prime targets for Democrats in campaigns across the nation.
Normally, running-mate debates have minimal impact, despite legendary moments such as Lloyd Bentsen's cutting "you're no Jack Kennedy" insult of Dan Quayle in 1988 and Bob Dole's remark to Walter Mondale in 1976 about troops killed in "Democrat wars." More than three decades of polling show vice presidential debates to be largely irrelevant to election results, Gallup reported this week.
"Should either Biden or Ryan achieve as unambiguous a win in Kentucky as Romney did in Denver, the vice presidential debate this year could ... be an exception," Gallup analyst Andrew Dugan wrote in an essay on historical polling patterns.
For top-of-the-ticket debates, the Obama-Romney matchup in Denver was a rare case of one that changed a campaign's trajectory, at least for now.
Polls taken in the aftermath show the two running neck-and-neck in national polls and Romney gaining in some of the battleground states that will likely decide the election.
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