Smirking Joe Biden and ever-so-earnest Paul Ryan played to a TV draw Thursday night in a vice-presidential debate moderated by ABC's Martha Raddatz.
That might sound boring, but the 90-minute telecast was anything but. Because of the staging, which sat the two men side by side at a table facing Raddatz, there was a much greater sense of engagement between the two and the moderator than there was in last week's presidential debate. That one included a passive-almost-submissive Jim Lehrer as moderator and a President Obama who seemed to be mentally and emotionally somewhere else most of the night.
In TV terms, Biden was a hot mess much of Thursday night. His TV sins included: continually smirking, sometimes grinning and even laughing aloud as Ryan spoke. If you watched on CNN, which held the two men in split screen all night, Biden was almost insufferable in his reactions. One minute, he seemed smug, the next loopy.
And it got worse in the middle portion of the debate when he started to get hot under the collar and kept interrupting Ryan.
At one point, he even sounded like he was yelling at Raddatz about Afghanistan. OK, maybe it wasn't exactly yelling, but he was talking far too loudly and forcefully for a man addressing a woman when she was the one supposedly in authority.
Really, between the inappropriate grinning and aggressive tone of voice, he sounded like an elderly relative who had one drink too many. I know that is not a nice thing to say about the vice president of the United States, but that's the way part of his performance came across on the small screen Thursday night.
He also sounded like an over-the-hill hack in his use of words like "malarkey" to dismiss his opponent's claims. To her credit, Raddatz called him on it and told him to get specific. It is the same old-time game that Mr. Over The Hill Himself, Newt Gingrich, used in the GOP primary debates when he referred to what his opponents were saying as "baloney." It's a sign of a mind too tired or lazy to zero in on specifics, and so, it resorts to vague terms of dismissal.
But for all that, in the end, Biden accomplished something incredibly important for the Democratic campaign: He projected energy, purpose and a sense of forcefulness. And Democrats were desperately seeking all three in the wake of Obama's lackluster, distracted, phlegmatic, mopey-dopey debate performance.
The best thing that can be said about Ryan is that he did no harm. He did nothing strange or flaky. And compared to mercurial Biden, he seemed downright solid. And that was his big task: to convince viewers that, unlike Sarah Palin, the whole world wouldn't be laughing at the thought of him as vice president.
I have to say Ryan did seem like the one adult sitting across from Raddatz in the way that he remained generally polite and in control even in the face of Biden's scorn and mockery. In terms of TV persona, he met Biden's arrogance with humility -- and that usually plays well. We'll have to see what the focus group data says.
In the end, though, I don't think Ryan did or said anything to move the dial in the direction of his ticket.
If anyone came out a winner Thursday, it was Raddatz. She wisely played to her foreign policy strengths, so she almost always seemed in firm control of the subject matter -- if not Biden's interruptions.
And unlike Lehrer, who seemed to disappear during the presidential debate, she was a strong presence for the full 90 minutes, directing the conversations where she wanted them to go -- not where the candidates wanted to take them.
Her biggest flaw was in not insisting on direct answers to her questions. She opened with Libya and asked, "Wasn't there a massive intelligence failure, Vice President Biden?"
But Biden never came close to answering that query. Worse, he sat there with a stupid smile on his face as the death of Americans was being discussed by Ryan.
The structure of the debate with more and shorter segments helped give the night a faster pace and better sense of direction. But it would not have happened if Raddatz had been as out of it as Lehrer. She made the trains run mostly on time and in the right direction Thursday night.
Bottom line, this debate is barely a blip in this election. It will be mostly forgotten by the weekend, as the focus starts to build toward the big presidential debate Tuesday night at Hofstra, which will answer the question of whether Obama can come back from his failure in front of 67.2 million viewers last week. That's the one that matters.
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