By Susan Page, USA TODAY
DANVILLE, Ky. (USA TODAY)- Joe Biden arrived on stage Thursday night determined to have the debate that his boss didn't.
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From the opening question, the vice president aggressively pressed Paul Ryan on the specifics of the GOP proposals. He worked in a reference to the killing of Osama bin Laden in response to a question about this month's attack on Americans in Libya. He all but called Ryan a liar when the Republican vice presidential nominee attacked President Obama's administration for issuing a series of misleading early statements on the terrorist assault that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
"Not true," Biden mouthed silently as Ryan was talking. "With all due respect, that's a bunch of malarkey," he declared. As the debate unfolded, Biden grinned; he mugged; he gestured; he interrupted. At times, he seemed to be laughing away Ryan's criticism, dismissing it as "bluster and loose talk."
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But Ryan, accustomed to defending a controversial budget plan, didn't back down, and he didn't lose his cool. He projected a confidence that Biden's 2008 rival, then-Alaska governor Sarah Palin, failed to do in their vice presidential debate four years ago. "I know you're under a lot of duress to make up for lost ground," Ryan told Biden at one point, "but I think it would be better if we stop interrupting each other."
Biden was energetic, engaged and combative in a way that Obama failed to be in his debate with Republican Mitt Romney in Denver last week. The open question may be whether he came across as convincing or rude.
Either way, his appearance couldn't be characterized as an empty chair, as Obama was on a New Yorker cover after the Denver debate. The running mates' encounter was faster paced and more immersed in policy details than the debate last week.
How much difference will it make?
Vice presidential debates typically don't matter much. Even the running mates' debate that had the clearest "winner" - Lloyd Bentsen after his memorable putdown of Dan Quayle as "no Jack Kennedy" - didn't rescue the 1988 election for the Democratic ticket. It was Quayle, not Bentsen, who was sworn in as vice president in January 1989.
This time, though, it's possible the running mates' debate could be of more consequence than usual in a campaign that is suddenly closer than ever and still in some flux.
Biden's supercharged performance was aimed at stemming the momentum the Republican ticket has been riding since the last debate. His aggressive demeanor may have been designed more to reassure Democratic partisans than to appeal to swing voters who tend to be less enamored of political warfare.
Ryan, renowned as a fan of the PowerPoint, seemed to be doing his best to respond not in the language of the House budget chairman but in the words of a native of Janesville, Wis. He had to repeatedly respond to accusations that Romney views were extreme or dangerous.
When the question involved the Afghanistan War, Ryan mentioned a friend who has been deployed there. When the topic turned Medicare, Ryan talked about what the health care program for seniors had meant for his mom, and how Social Security benefits helped him and her when his father died when he was a teenager.
He defended GOP proposals on Medicare. "We are not going to jeopardize this program, but we have to save it," Ryan said. But Biden hammered on that issue, abortion rights and more. He responded to Ryan's assurances with disbelief. "Folks, use your common sense," he said, looking straight into the camera. On this issue, he asked, "who do you trust?"
Biden argued that voters shouldn't trust Romney and Ryan to watch out for the interests of the middle class. Obama last week never mentioned Romney's secretly taped comments decrying the "47%" of Americans he said didn't pay federal income taxes, were dependent on the government and saw themselves as "victims." Biden threaded the evening with references to it, arguing that voters can't trust Romney and Ryan to watch out for the middle class.
Ryan argued that the Obama administration already had failed them.
"You have a president who ran for president four years ago, who promised hope and change and who has transformed his campaign into attack and defame," Ryan said near the end of the 90-minute debate. "Look at all the string of broken promises," from deficits to health care.
The first striking thing about their standoff was how different the two men were. The second: how much they were the same.
The differences were obvious, starting with the generational contrast. Biden is 69 years old, a member of the so-called Silent Generation that came before the Baby Boomers. Wisconsin Congressman Ryan is 42, the first member of the post-Boomer Generation X to be nominated by a major party on a national ticket.
Then there are their politics. Biden is one of the nation's senior Democrats, beloved by many of the blue-collar and Jewish voters who help make up the party's liberal base. Ryan is an up-and-coming Republican with a more reliably conservative history than running mate Mitt Romney and a stronger appetite for stirring controversy, especially on budget issues. That has made him a favorite of the Tea Party movement.
Those differences were spotlighted on stage at Centre College in the sole debate between them.
But the similarities between Biden and Ryan also shaped their conversation, from their common roots in blue-collar America to long political careers that made each of them congressional royalty. In those ways, they resemble one another more than they do the presidential nominees.
Both are Catholics born in manufacturing towns in the Rust Belt that have seen economic struggles - Biden in Scranton, Pa., and Ryan in Janesville and each mentioned his hometown during the debate.
Biden won his first election to the New Castle County Council in Delaware at age 28; Ryan won his first election at age 28, too, to represent Wisconsin's 1st Congressional District. Biden stayed in the Senate for seven terms, including a tenure as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, before becoming vice president. Ryan has served seven terms in the House and chairs the Budget Committee. The congressional experience sometimes showed. Biden, for instance, kept referring to Ryan as "my friend."
But he didn't seem to mean it.