DANVILLE, Ky. Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan quarreled aggressively on Thursday night over the administration's handling of foreign affairs and the nation's economic recovery, using a debate here to highlight the sharp contrasts facing voters in November.
The two vice-presidential candidates not only picked up where President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney left off at their debate last week, they also expanded the arguments into a combative and wide-ranging discussion ranging from Iran's ability to obtain nuclear weapons to the unemployment rate. They delivered some of the most forceful exchanges of the campaign, with neither man holding back.
Within a single minute of the debate's first 25 minutes, Biden worked in three attacks that Democrats were disappointed Obama did not level against Romney, referring to Romney's opposition to the bailout of the auto industry, his statement that the nation's foreclosure crisis would have to "run its course" and his comment about the "47 percent" of Americans who he said were overreliant on government benefits.
''These guys bet against America all the time," Biden said.
But Ryan offered a point-by-point rebuttal, showing fluency in foreign affairs. He said the administration had no "credibility" in its international approach to Iran, because it had sent mixed signals, and that the tough sanctions that are in place came about only because of the fortitude of Congress, as the administration sought to "water down" the sanctions.
He assailed the administration's handling of the terrorist strike in Libya that killed the U.S. ambassador, saying: "It took the president two weeks to acknowledge that this was a terrorist attack. Look, if we're hit by terrorists, we're going to call it what it is, a terrorist attack."
Ryan chastised Obama, questioning why the United States did not have protection for the diplomatic compound. He declared, "This is becoming more troubling by the day."
But as Biden reminded Ryan that he and House Republicans cut the budget for the security, he sought to use the question about the attack on Libya to immediately begin the attack on Romney's positioning. He contrasted Obama's overall foreign policy record with Romney's, ranging from Iraq to the killing of Osama bin Laden.
''The president has led with a steady hand and clear vision: Gov. Romney hasn't," Biden said. "The last thing we need is another war."
The men repeatedly talked over each other, with Biden growing visibly agitated at Ryan's remarks, which at one point he called "malarkey."
But Biden made it clear from the start that he was not going to repeat the mistakes of Obama. And Martha Raddatz of ABC News, the moderator, made it clear she was not going to repeat what many people in both parties saw as the mistakes of the last moderator, Jim Lehrer, and took control of the debate with tough questions and sharp follow-ups.
''This is a bunch of stuff," Biden said at one point, offering a forceful rebuttal of criticism that the administration has not aggressively worked with Israel to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
''What does that mean, a bunch of stuff?" Raddatz said.
''It's Irish," Ryan said, jumping in with a smile.
The vice-presidential candidates arrived here at an important moment in the race, with Republicans eager to build upon Romney's strong showing at his first debate with Obama. The performance energized the Romney campaign, created angst among supporters of the president and prompted some voters to take a second look at Romney in the final weeks of the contest.
Here in Danville, on the campus of Centre College, the only debate of the campaign between Biden and Ryan took on a sense of magnitude that extended beyond a typical vice-presidential debate.
As Democrats demanded a more aggressive posture against the Republican ticket than Obama displayed last week in Denver, Biden faced pressure to reassure the campaign's nervous supporters, even as he worked not to be too forceful and overplay his hand against Ryan.
The two men walked on stage in Newlin Hall and took their seats around a table, rather than standing at lecterns as their counterparts did last week, and took questions on domestic and foreign policy posed by Raddatz.
The choice facing voters was clear in substance and in style between Biden, 69, and Ryan, 42. But even though their age difference spans more than a generation — Ryan is one year younger than Biden's oldest son — they are far better acquainted from serving together on Capitol Hill than Obama and Romney, who had not dealt with each other until this race.
While the president campaigned in Florida on Thursday and Romney visited North Carolina, the campaign's center of gravity was here in Danville, about an hour south of Lexington. Top advisers from the respective campaign headquarters in Chicago and Boston descended on this small college town, which also hosted the 2000 vice-presidential debate between Dick Cheney and Joseph I. Lieberman.
It was the biggest moment of the campaign for Ryan, who invigorated the Republican base in August when Romney asked him to join the ticket. As chairman of the House Budget Committee, he has spent much of the last two months explaining his budget plan, which calls for deep cuts in federal spending and is as cherished among fiscal conservatives as it is loathed by Democrats.
Ryan's performance was highly anticipated by Democrats for how much he would embrace the conservative budget approach that helped make him a national name well before Romney invited him to join the ticket. That message has somewhat faded to the background as Romney has sought to appeal to moderates and former Obama voters.
Central to Ryan's proposals has been an option for those 65 and older to receive government subsidies for private insurance instead of traditional enrollment in the Medicare health program, which, under his latest plan, would continue to be offered. His latest plan also included the $716 billion in cuts to Medicare's growth over the next 10 years that he and Romney have criticized Obama for embracing in his health care overhaul.
When pressed on that similarity, Romney has said that his budgetary plans as president would not include that $716 billion reduction. "We're putting that $716 billion back," he told a crowd in Ohio in August.
Ryan and Romney have also played down their differences on some social issues. Ryan opposes adoption by same-sex couples, Romney does not. And Ryan has opposed abortion even in cases of rape and incest; Romney's opposition does not extend to that.
But Ryan supported the administration's bailout of the auto industry, which Romney did not.
Biden, on the other hand, voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which Obama opposed, though he has since said that he believes doing so was a mistake. And his recent comment that the middle class had been "buried the last four years" has been seized on as fodder by Republicans, who gleefully noted who was in the White House during that period.
Biden had spent weeks preparing to pick apart the Ryan budget plan on a night that is the most high-profile moment for running mates. He was poised to break down in simple terms what the plan would mean in the lives of ordinary Americans, from cutting Head Start programs for children to the Medicare overhaul.
But the debate unfolded against the backdrop of an impending fiscal crisis, with Republicans and Democrats facing difficult choices immediately after the election with the looming "fiscal cliff," the combination of $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts to begin next year unless a budget agreement is reached and the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts.
The debate, while a critical part of the presidential campaign, illustrated the consequences of the election and the sharp choice facing voters in November and beyond. Foreign policy was not part of the presidential debate last week, but the questions here Thursday night also shined the light on international affairs, with the debate coming as congressional hearings in Washington raised new questions about how the administration handled the terrorist attack that led to the death of the U.S. ambassador in Libya and three other Americans last month.
During Ryan's 14 years in Congress, he has focused on domestic policy and spending, a contrast to Biden's tenure on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Ryan had been preparing for the debate since the day he was selected, surrounded by advisers as he has campaigned over the last two months.
The next presidential debate is set for Tuesday, when the candidates take questions from voters at a town-hall-style meeting in Hempstead, N.Y. The third and final debate between Obama and Romney is Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla., only two weeks before Election Day on Nov. 6.