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7 takeaways from the VP debate

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(File photo/MGN) (File photo/MGN)

By Maggie Haberman
For POLITICO.com

DANVILLE, Ky. – The Thrille in the Ville is complete.

Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan competed in a lively, messy, loud and largely inconclusive debate at Centre College last night. Ninety minutes later, little had changed to alter the trajectory of the race.

Below, POLITICO's seven takeaways:

It was a brawl

Candidate debates that take place seated at a table tend to reduce the potential for nastiness and engagement.

Not this time.

Biden got the memo about not duplicating President Obama's listless sleepwalk in Denver, and seems to have read it repeatedly. Aggressive from the get-go, he threw his hands in the air, guffawed as Ryan spoke, interrupted his rival and belittled him ("this guy," "my friend."). He flashed his teeth frequently and grinned incessantly.

"That's a bunch of stuff," Biden chided Ryan as he talked about Iran potentially achieving nuclear weapon capability (he made clear he meant a different word that starts with "s."). He seemed to run out of steam in the final 20 minutes, but kept the performance up for the bulk of the debate.

Ryan returned punches not quite as hard as he got them – he is not the attack dog Biden is – but bit back by mocking the vice president's penchant for gaffes (he said that Biden knows as well as anyone that sometimes words don't come out right).

It was fun for politics-lovers, but it's unclear how appealing the style of the Biden performance was to average voters who were watching. And in those exchanges, Ryan frequently did well by simply keeping calm.

And Biden's open disdain for Ryan was a far cry from the measured, older candidate schooling the newbie performance voters saw from Dick Cheney in 2004.

It all depends on Tuesday in New York

The main takeaway on the night was it was effectively a draw.

Democrats believe Biden won because he prosecuted his case better than Ryan, playing strongly to the base with a homespun narrative about his mom and his dad, working-class folks and people needing government help.

Republicans believe Biden looked unhinged on TV (a point some Democrats privately concede), appearing ready to lunge at Ryan at certain points – a concept they pushed on Twitter with a hashtag. To be sure, there were genuine moments of weirdness for Biden, but Republicans had set the bar pretty low for him on that front.

Ryan, who seemed to have memorized a number of briefing book lines, mostly held his own, including on foreign policy questions (more on that later). He made no gaffes, and while not dominant at any point, fared well enough for a vice presidential debate. The yawning age gap between them made Biden seem too old at points, and Ryan seem too young at others.

Republicans believe Biden looked unhinged on TV (a point some Democrats privately concede), appearing ready to lunge at Ryan at certain points – a concept they pushed on Twitter with a hashtag. To be sure, there were genuine moments of weirdness for Biden, but Republicans had set the bar pretty low for him on that front.

Ryan, who seemed to have memorized a number of briefing book lines, mostly held his own, including on foreign policy questions (more on that later). He made no gaffes, and while not dominant at any point, fared well enough for a vice presidential debate. The yawning age gap between them made Biden seem too old at points, and Ryan seem too young at others.

But the momentum has been on the Republicans' side, and Biden's  imperfect performance didn't grab it back. On the other hand, he also didn't dig the Democrats a deeper hole, which was the main concern for a party that's spent eight days answering questions about Denver.

And he was able to turn in a few powerful moments, including talking about losing his first wife and his daughter in a car accident decades ago – an opportunity afforded him when Ryan brought up a car accident victim whom Romney once helped financially.

Neither man let the facts get in the way of a good story

Biden was soaring along on foreign policy at the start of the debate, making a clear argument in response to a question about what happened in Benghazi … until he said that the administration didn't know that diplomats there had wanted more security.

In fact, the State Department has made clear they did, which is among the many issues at play in the investigation into what happened in the violence that left four Americans dead.

Ryan had a similar moment when he had to face a pre-planned oppo hit from Biden about the letters he wrote seeking stimulus funds (he said, as his aides have, that he was doing it on behalf of a constituent). It was an uncomfortable moment, given how much of the House Budget Committee chairman's political brand is based on authenticity. He also struggled when moderator Martha Raddatz pressed him on the numbers behind the ticket's tax plan.

And Biden's son, Beau, reportedly said in the spin room that Ryan opened the way toward sending more troops to Afghanistan – which isn't quite what happened.

The fact-checking industry has blossomed during the 2012 cycle, and there's a strong expectation of several pieces tomorrow calling out both sides.

Remember when jobs was the number one issue?

This was not a debate that was supposed to be set around foreign policy. Yet issues of national security and foreign policy dominated, beginning with Raddatz's opening question to Biden about Libya and culminating in a discussion of Syria and whether to send troops there.

There were questions about Ryan's Medicare plan and how he would approach the massive social welfare program, questions about Romney's tax plan, questions about how each man (both are Roman Catholic) came to their positions on abortion (Ryan's answer is being criticized by Democrats, who note he didn't modulate his stand on the issue).

But the number of foreign policy questions was striking, even with all the givens about how Libya didn't come up in the last debate and Raddatz' background as a reporter.

For Biden, this is an area of strength, and one that has been on the Democrats' side for most of the year ahead of the Sept. 11 attacks in Benghazi and the protest in Cairo. But he faced some tough questions.

For Ryan, the briefings he got in this department turned out to be a blessing. While he did not come off as naturally facile on some of the issues, he did not make any notable stumbles either, and was able to field repeated questions from Raddatz.

But the tables have turned in a notable way as the unemployment rate has dipped, and as the right-track figures in polling have improved – Democrats are more eager to talk about the economy as a story they bill as an improvement, while Republicans have turned to foreign policy to highlight Obama as a weak leader.

The 47 percent comment made an appearance

Biden not only was more alert than Obama was, he also remembered to use the lines he was prepped with. Raddatz never asked about the secretly-recorded fundraiser at which Romney talked about "47 percent" of Americans who consider themselves victims.

But Biden inserted the issue in response to a different question, road-testing its use ahead of his boss's debate against Romney next week, where it's almost certain to come up.

Ryan did not defend strongly against it – and to that end, the GOP vice presidential hopeful generally used his time to talk about the ticket in broad terms like "we." He did not use the word "Romney" as frequently as Biden invoked the president. He criticized Obamacare aggressively, but not memorably.

His best answers were toward the end of the debate, especially as he talked about abortion and seeing the ultrasound of his firstborn child when his wife was seven weeks pregnant, an emotional and relatable moment for viewers with kids. But the policy positions he discussed, while familiar to people who know his record, are ones that Democrats have used against him for months.

Indeed, Ryan at points seemed to be mindful of the independents his ticket is hoping to appeal to, while Biden's performance was largely about the base. Biden looked directly into the camera more than once during the debate, appealing to senior citizens and asking them to be sensible as they assess Ryan's budget plans. He talked about not telling women what to do with their bodies at the end.

And perhaps most significantly, he ditched Obama's more precise language on the administration's tax plan for income earners of more than $250,000. Biden used the generic "millionaires," a reflection of a policy battle he waged internally and lost, but also his belief he knows how to do this better than Obama.

Raddatz gets mixed reviews

Granted, the bar was set fairly low by critics and political observers after Jim Lehrer's outing last week. But Raddatz got pretty mixed reviews for her performance.

On the one hand, her questions were far sharper than Lehrer's in terms of shaping the debate. She asked questions that were pointed – such as the one toward the end about whether the two men were embarrassed by the tone of the debate. She cut Ryan off to steer the conversation toward Iran early on, and away from Libya.

But she also lost control at key moments, letting Biden interrupt Ryan repeatedly to the point where crosstalk was all viewers could hear.

Some of the criticism of her last night was partisan – Republicans who liked how Romney did last week thought Lehrer excelled in his laid-back execution, and thought Raddatz was overly engaged. Democrats were far less critical of Raddatz than they were of Lehrer.

How she'll be judged in the light of day remains to be seen. But it was a step up from Denver.

There's some 2016 residue

Biden is widely known to be considering a run of his own for the presidency in four years, and his movements have matched that interest in the past year in terms of hires he's made and some of his travels.

Ryan is also believed to have the concept of a presidential run of his own somewhere in the recesses of his brain should Romney fail.

Biden probably did a bit more to endear himself to his base than Ryan did last night, although more people saw Ryan in this event than at any point since he was picked, other than his convention speech.

The vice presidential hopeful whose candidate wins will have some bragging rights about helping him get there — a chit to play in a primary down the road.

Maggie Haberman is a reporter for POLITICO.com. POLITICO and ABC News 4 have partnered for the 2012 presidential campaign cycle.
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