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Biden v. Ryan: Like a father-son brawl

By Alan Schroeder, Special to CNN
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Fri October 12, 2012
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, right, and Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan depart the stage following their debate on Thursday, October 11. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/11/politics/gallery/joe-biden-expressions/index.html' target='_blank'>See the many expressions of Vice President Joe Biden during the debate</a>. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, right, and Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan depart the stage following their debate on Thursday, October 11. See the many expressions of Vice President Joe Biden during the debate.
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The Vice Presidential Debate
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Alan Schroeder: Debate's most striking feature was the age gap between candidates
  • Schroeder: Biden managed to dominate the evening
  • He says Ryan came across as not quite seasoned enough for the office he seeks
  • Schroeder: Biden allows Obama to hit the reset button for his rematch with Romney

Editor's note: Alan Schroeder, a professor in the School of Journalism at Northeastern University, is the author of "Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High-Risk TV."

(CNN) -- Add another chapter to the illustrious history of freewheeling vice presidential debates. At Centre College in Kentucky, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan engaged in what might euphemistically be described as a lively exchange of ideas. In reality it felt more like a testy verbal brawl between father and son. Consider these key 5 moments from the debate.

Ryan: No need to apologize

Ryan: Shouldn't apologize for our values

This is a well played moment by Ryan, one of his best of the debate. He has a specific argument to make, and he fleshes out that argument clearly and logically. Ryan also delivers the material in an effective way. You can see his face become more animated as he speaks, and he uses simple rhetoric to express his doubts about the Obama administration's handling of the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya.

Politics: Five things we learned from the VP debate

Biden's strategic anger

Biden: Main, Wall St. need same rules

In this clip, Biden delivers the attack everybody had expected President Obama to launch in the first debate. Biden is sharply critical of disparaging comments made by Mitt Romney and Ryan about Americans who, for one reason or another, do not pay income tax. This is classic Biden. He takes a large philosophical abstraction about the role of government in people's lives and personalizes it, citing his parents, his neighbors, the people he grew up with, seniors, veterans and soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. It's quite a list, and he delivers it convincingly and passionately.

Ryan pushes back on the 47% remark

Ryan: Romney cares about 100%

This represents an attempt by Ryan to use humor to deflect a negative, in this case Romney's now-famous comment about the 47% of Americans who don't pay taxes. Debate strategists plan these moments in advance, but it is impossible to predict how they will actually play. In joking about Biden's propensity for verbal gaffes, Ryan is suggesting that Romney mangled his words when referring to the 47%. Ryan does a decent job delivering the line that had been written for him, and he even gets a laugh from the audience. But in the final analysis there's not much Ryan or anyone else can do to counteract the damage caused by Romney's original comment.

Biden: Now you're Jack Kennedy?

Biden to Ryan: You're Jack Kennedy now?

In this exchange the two candidates struggle to dominate the conversation -- again, I am reminded of a father and son going at it over the dinner table. The look of feigned incredulity on Biden's face as Ryan speaks is priceless. For his part, Ryan can barely contain his exasperation at being talked over. Biden's line -- "Oh, and now you're Jack Kennedy" -- is a not too subtle allusion to the classic vice presidential debate putdown from 1988, when Lloyd Bentsen told Dan Quayle, "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." Ryan attempts to laugh off the insult, but he seems a bit rattled here. Biden appears to have hit a nerve. Shouldn't candidates know by now that it's never safe to invoke John F. Kennedy in a presidential debate?

Politics: First two debates couldn't be more different

Ryan loses his cool

Biden, Ryan clash over Afghan withdrawal

Stylistically this is one of Ryan's low points in the debate. Unsure how to handle Biden's perturbed tone, Ryan loses his cool. He begins squirming in his chair and moving his neck like a bobblehead doll. At a couple of points he emits a strange, snort-like chuckle, a sound that does not exactly enhance his maturity. For the most part in this debate, Ryan did not let an overbearing Biden get under his skin, but not in this clip.

Let's give Ryan credit where credit is due. Before the debate he predicted that Biden would come at him "like a cannonball," and indeed he did. Though it wasn't always pretty, Biden managed to dominate the evening, an old lion who had no intention of being taken down by the young gun sitting across the table.

Like a master thespian on opening night, Biden conspicuously deployed pretty much his entire bag of performing tricks: dramatic line-readings, huge smiles, exaggerated laughter, asides to the audience. As over-the-top as some of this became, it got the job done. For much of the debate the super-charged veep kept his opponent in a defensive crouch. At times it looked as if Ryan was afraid Biden might ground him and take away the car keys.

Ryan did have his moments in this debate, but overall he came across as not quite seasoned enough for the office he seeks. Undergirding every vice presidential debate is the question of which candidate is ready to step into the Oval Office at a moment's notice. By this standard, Ryan failed to hit the mark.

Which is not to suggest that the man has no future in presidential politics. The years will obviously take him beyond the problem of immaturity. If Mitt Romney loses this election, it is not inconceivable that four years from now Ryan and Biden might even end up back onstage together, as co-stars in a presidential debate.

Opinion: Sports bar Biden vs. seminar Ryan

Overall, this debate's most striking characteristic was the age gap between candidates. In the optics of televised debates a generational difference can cut either way: the older candidate might look out of date and past his prime, or wise and experienced. The younger candidate might look fresh and energetic, or not ready for prime time. In this case, Biden's age tended to work in his favor; Ryan's youth worked against him.

Beyond the matter of gravitas, Biden won the debate for a second reason: he managed to put on the table most of the issues that President Obama failed to raise in Denver. This was a tricky maneuver, but for the most part Biden accomplished his mission. This allows Obama to hit the reset button for his rematch with Romney next week.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alan Schroeder.

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