(The Root) — The vice-presidential debate, which set the table for the Romney-Obama rematch at Hofstra University on Oct. 16, resembled an old-fashioned boxing match between a cagey veteran and a wiry upstart from a GOP Party that is 98 percent white.
Unlike President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, who stayed in their corners during the first of three debates, their stand-ins for high office clearly went down to Kentucky Thursday night to rumble. Vice President Joe Biden had all the moves of what might pass in some quarters as belonging to a black street fighter, while small-town Paul Ryan came on as the great white hope.
The tone was set early when a punch from the 69-year-old vice president came from nowhere and staggered his 42-year-old opponent during the debate last night.
The vice president landed his left hook over the matter of the $20 million that Rep. Paul Ryan had requested from the very Department of Energy he had just criminally accused of "crony capitalism and corporate welfare." Both Ryan and Romney have sharply criticized the $90 billion stimulus program the Obama administration committed to support clean energy.
"[Ryan] writes me a letter saying — writes the Department of Energy a letter," said Biden, "saying 'The reason we need this stimulus, it will create growth and jobs.' His words! And now he's sitting here looking at me" talking "about cronyism … I wish he would be a little more candid."
The counterpunch seemed momentarily to have put Ryan on what boxing writers call "queer street," as his droopy eyes went blank and the smirk receded from his razor lips. When the Boston Globe in August revealed that Ryan sent four letters requesting funds for a conservation group, the Wisconsin congressman told an Ohio TV station: "I never asked for stimulus."
Last night, moderator Martha Raddatz challenged Ryan: "You did ask for stimulus money, correct?"
"On two occasions," he said, struggling to get his legs back under him. "We, we, we advocated for constituents who are applying for grants. That's what we do … "
It was one moment of the vice-presidential debate when the two opponents personally butted heads. Most of the 90 minutes were spent in defense — or attacking the record — of public statements and even the characters of Obama and Romney.
With almost as many years in the U.S. Senate as Ryan is old, Biden smiled condescendingly as he worked the opening foreign-policy rounds on Libya, Iran and Afghanistan. Repeatedly, he out-punched the less prepared Ryan, derisively dismissed as "my friend," with shouts of: "That's a bunch of malarkey," "Not a single thing he said is accurate," "This is a bunch of stuff" and "Look, here's the deal."
So tough was Biden in such clinches that, at one point, Ryan pleaded: "Mr. Vice President, I know you're under a lot of duress to make up for lost ground, but I think people would be better served if we don't keep interrupting each other."
After stumbling on during discussions about Iran and Afghanistan, Ryan regained his footing in the more familiar arena of domestic policy, fighting Biden to a near standstill and leaving viewers to choose sides between the two parties' starkly different viewpoints on taxes, job cuts and Medicare. And though each is Catholic, their views on abortion diverged, with Ryan opposing abortion in almost all cases and Biden supporting Roe v. Wade.
The vice president turned and directly challenged TV viewers to consider Supreme Court appointments when choosing between Obama and Romney.
"The next president will get one or two Supreme Court nominees. That's how close Roe v. Wade is. Just ask yourself, with Robert Bork being the chief adviser on the court for — for Mr. Romney, who do you think he's likely to appoint? Do you think he's likely to appoint someone like Scalia or someone else on the court far right that would outlaw (inaudible) — outlaw abortion?"
The congressman drew the audience laugh of the night when defending against gaffe-prone Biden's reminder of Romney's 47-percent remarks. "With respect to that quote," Ryan retorted, "I think the vice president very well knows that sometimes the words don't come out of your mouth the right way."
In the wake of the ensuing outburst from the Centre College crowd, Biden shot back, "But I always say what I mean. And so does Romney." Later, he added, "That little soliloquy on 47 percent — [if] you think [Romney] made a mistake … I got a bridge to sell you."
All night, the split-screen TV shots showed the two men seated before the moderator at a table, oddly appearing to look off-screen. Biden gazed to the left and Ryan to the right, as if talking to someone on opposing window ledges. In a cagey move, Ryan turned directly to face the camera and ended the debate with a rehearsed attack on the Obama administration.
"The choice is clear, and [it] rests with you," he said. "Thank you."
Les Payne is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and frequent contributor to The Root.