Sparks Fly In Vice Presidential Debate

Credit: CBS

Fireworks were shooting off early in Thursday night's vice presidential debate as a feisty Vice President Joe Biden squared off against Republican contender Paul Ryan.

Smiling and at times even laughing his way through what had been described by many as a must-win after a widely panned debate performance by President Obama last week, Biden took an aggressive tone from the start and didn't let up for the entire 90 minute debate. Though Ryan, who was only 6 years old when Biden first entered Congress, held his own on stage, the incumbent vice president was the clear winner based on several polls, including one on undecided voters conducted by CBS.

Unlike the first presidential debate, which centered around just a few domestic questions, Thursday's debate ran the gamut from foreign policy to religion; the debate was a historic first for featuring two Catholics, and moderator Martha Raddatz used that fact to question the two men on how their faith impacted their views on abortion.

Both men likely scored with their bases with their answer: Biden saying he was personally pro-life but didn't believe in imposing his belief on others, Ryan stating a Romney-Ryan administration would oppose abortions with the exceptions of rape, incest and life of the mother.

Ryan's answer could, however, put him somewhat at odds with his running mate, who told an Iowa newspaper earlier in the week that there was no anti-abortion legislation that he knew of on his agenda. The Romney campaign immediately walked back on the remark, issuing a statement two hours later saying that Romney "is proudly pro-life and would be a pro-life president."

The men sparred over the war in Afghanistan, Biden defending the Obama administration's stance on pulling all American troops out by 2014, and Ryan inferring a Romney-Ryan administration would make such a timeline conditional. Iran, Libya and Syria also made appearances in the debate, with Biden put on the defensive over the Obama administration's handling of the events in Libya last month.

When asked by Raddatz if another war in the Middle East would be worse than a nuclear-armed Iran, Ryan answered that a nuclear-armed Iran would be devastating, triggering an arms race in the volatile region.

Biden, whose son served a year in Iraq, said that "war should always be the last resort."

Ryan got the biggest laugh of the night during a section on the economy, when he told the famously gaffe-prone vice president that he of all people knows words don't always come out right. The comment came after several instances of Biden bringing up Romney's infamous "47 percent" comment secretly taped at a fundraiser earlier in the year.

"Mitt Romney's a good man. He cares about 100 percent of Americans in this country. And with respect to that quote, I think the vice president very well knows that sometimes the words don't come out of your mouth the right way," Ryan said, provoking hearty laughter from the audience.

Biden got in a few zingers himself, particularly one early on when he told Ryan that his criticism of the Obama administration was a "bunch of malarkey." That moment took cyberspace by storm, becoming the third-most searched debate term of the night, and trended on Twitter for much of the debate.

Biden also had a memorable moment when he pointed out to Ryan, who was presenting a strong criticism of the Obama stimulus package, that Ryan himself had written two letters requesting stimulus funds.

"I love that. I love that. This was such a bad program and he writes me a letter saying--writes the Department of Energy a letter saying, 'The reason we need this stimulus, it will create growth and jobs.' His words. And now he's sitting here looking at me."

Overall, political analysts say that both men did the job their respective campaigns needed them to do. Ryan proved a capable defender of Romney's platform and was a strong presence on stage, with six in 10 debate watchers telling a CNN poll that Ryan was qualified to be president.

Biden, for his part, brought aggression that Democrats thought Obama lacked last week, and likely eased the panic many Obama supporters had been feeling after Romney's strong debate performance. Vice presidential debates rarely change the trajectory of the race, but much like Dick Cheney in 2004, who famously stepped up in his debate with John Edwards after a lackluster debate performance by then-President George W. Bush, Biden's performance is expected to stop the bleeding on the Democrats' side--at least until next week's presidential debate.