U.S. Congressman Paul Ryan
Here is my right-away take on Thursday night's vice-presidential candidate debate — without any exposure to post-debate TV talking head and partisan spin:
First, neither candidate clearly had the upper hand over the other. It was a draw or close to it.
Second, on style, Vice President Joe Biden clearly tried to be the aggressor but he sometimes overdid it, interrupting Rep. Paul Ryan often, smirking and rolling his eyes as Ryan spoke, and until quite late in the debate speaking in a near shout rather than in the conversational tone more appropriate to TV. He referred to Ryan as "my friend" whereas Ryan referred to him as "Mr. Vice President." Ryan, by contrast, sometimes seemed overly polite and kept a poker face in some situations where he could have shown more emotion. Ryan, as anticipated, reflected his wonkish background, Biden his long partisan experience.
Third, on substance, both men reiterated their tickets' main themes: Biden stressing Democrats' concern for the middle class, and disdain for the rich, and Ryan Republicans' stress on private-sector growth to energize the domestic economy. There were statements by both which could lead to later campaign debate by all four national candidates regarding Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iran in particular. These foreign-policy issues all will get high visibility in the two remaining presidential debates.
Fourth, I expect that national and key-state polling data, a few days hence, will show that the debate changed little. President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney remain in a close race, with neither at this point being a frontrunner.
I thought moderator Martha Raddatz, an ABC foreign-affairs correspondent, did an even weaker job than last week's moderator, Jim Lehrer of PBS. Her followup questions often revealed her own relative ignorance of subjects with which she should have been conversant. But that matters little.
Vice-presidential debates definitely have less impact on presidential campaigns than those between the presidential nominees. Their viewing audiences generally are much smaller than those watching presidential-candidate debates. That had to have been the case Thursday since the debate played opposite major-league-baseball playoff action and an NFL game on other channels. The Thursday night Biden-Ryan debate had more than usual significance, though, because it presented the first chance for the Obama-Biden ticket to bounce back from what generally was regarded as a victory by Romney in his debate last week with Obama. Or, from the opposite vantage point, it offered Romney-Ryan a chance to put daylight between themselves and the Democratic ticket.
Going into last week's debate, Obama led slightly in national polls, but within the three-point margin of error, meaning that the race effectively was a tie. Going into the Biden-Ryan debate, Romney held a similar lead but, again, within the three-point margin of error. As I predicted in my post-debate piece last week, Romney solidified his position and generated momentum — even though, in my judgment, his edge over Obama in the debate was much smaller than the media-consensus belief. Last week's debate not only gave Romney a nudge in the polls; it also fired up his voter base and created an uptick in his campaign contributions. I also believe that, in the wake of the debate, Obama's and his partisans' harsh, polarizing statements hurt rather than helped him — especially among independent voters.
Recent-year vice-presidential-candidate debates have had impacts on the dynamics of the overall races. In 1976, Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter had an opening advantage over President Gerald Ford, who was carrying the burden of his pardon of dishonored former President Richard Nixon. But Carter gave a bland, so-so performance in his first debate against Ford. His running mate, Sen. Walter Mondale, helped regain momentum for the Democratic ticket with a following good performance against the GOP vice-presidential nominee, Sen. Bob Dole. Dole lost the debate outright, in particular because of petulant, angry statements questioning whether President Franklin Roosevelt had been right to enter World War II against Germany and Japan.
In 2000, the Gore-Lieberman ticket entered the campaign as heavy favorites over the Bush-Cheney ticket. The country enjoyed peace and prosperity. There was no strong tide toward change. Vice President Al Gore and Sen. Joe Lieberman both were expected to dominate their debates against Texas Gov. George W. Bush and former Rep. Dick Cheney. As it turned out, Gore got no better than a draw in his first debate with Bush. Many gave Bush a slight edge. Cheney then appeared to do slightly better than Lieberman in a following debate. The campaign's dynamic shifted.
Most voters may not remember that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin turned in a surprisingly competitive performance in 2008 against Biden in their vice-presidential-candidate debate. Only later did she go into a total implosion mode.
Now focus shifts to the two remaining Obama-Romney joint appearances/debates, with the next one scheduled for next Tuesday night.
With election day now quickly approaching, both candidates will want strong performances to generate money, enthusiasm, and overall momentum coming down the stretch. The candidates' performances, one should remind, are judged not just on statements made (unless they are first-class gaffes, such as Dole's criticisms of FDR) and debater points scored but by the overall impressions they leave. Fierce partisans always think their candidate won and that his opponent was mean or distorting their man's record. But most independent and undecided voters — the ones who decide elections — ask themselves: Which candidate left an overall impression of being the one most in charge, poised, confident, and knowledgeable?
Overall I call this debate a draw.
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