DENVER -- Less than four weeks from the end of an election that will likely be determined by which party's base shows up, Vice President Joe Biden did something essential in a 90-minute debate with his GOP challenger Paul Ryan -- he fired up a beleaguered base.
It's unclear, however, if Biden did Democrats good or bad with undecided voters -- as television networks' undecided voter panels offered different conclusions about who won the debate.
While this debate isn't likely to change the dynamics of the election to the degree last week's incredibly flat performance by President Barack Obama has fueled a sudden surge for Mitt Romney, Biden's performance offered distraught Democrats the energy and emotion and punch they wanted to see last Wednesday night from the president.
Biden's antics -- he chortled throughout the debate, grinned through many of Ryan's answers, and peppered his rhetoric with signature idioms like "malarkey" and "that's a bunch of stuff" -- were mocked by many, but also offered a stark contrast with Ryan's focused, understated demeanor.
Republicans projected confidence that Ryan performed capably and more credibly than Biden, who they looked to characterize as "unhinged" with a new Twitter hashtag, #BidenUnhinged.
The moderator, ABC's Martha Raddatz, also kept a firmer hand on the discussion, which was far more focused and fast-paced than the first presidential contrast last week.
Ryan goes on offense over Libya attacks
Ryan went right on offense as Raddatz's first question focused on the Obama administration's response to the terrorist attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Libya.
"Look, if we're hit by terrorists we're going to call it for what it is, a terrorist attack," Ryan said. "This Benghazi issue would be a tragedy in and of itself, but unfortunately it's indicative of a broader problem. And that is what we are watching on our TV screens is the unraveling of the Obama foreign policy."
But Biden, a foreign policy veteran, deflected Ryan's attack, interjecting that it was a bunch of "malarky" and hitting Ryan, who criticized the lack of security at the embassy, for voting to reduce embassy security by $300 million.
Biden drops the "47 percent" hammer
When the debate turned to domestic issues, Biden went on offense, defending the administration's record on job creation and attacking Republicans in Congress for standing in the way of further job growth.
And, he quickly did what Obama failed to do last week in Denver and hit the GOP ticket for Romney's "47 percent" remark.
"These people are my mom and dad -- the people I grew up with, my neighbors. They pay more effective tax than Governor Romney pays in his federal income tax," Biden said. "They are elderly people who in fact are living off of Social Security. They are veterans and people fighting in Afghanistan right now who are, quote, 'not paying any tax'.
Ryan asked Biden about the unemployment rate in the vice president's hometown of Scranton, Pa., before blaming the administration for not doing more to fix the economy since taking office.
"Look, did they come in and inherit a tough situation? Absolutely. But we're going in the wrong direction," Ryan said. "Look at where we are. The economy is barely limping along. It's growing a 1.3 percent. That's slower than it grew last year and last year was slower than the year before.
"Job growth in September was slower than it was in August, and August was slower than it was in July. We're heading in the wrong direction; 23 million Americans are struggling for work today; 15 percent of Americans are living in poverty today. This is not what a real recovery looks like."
Ryan also cleverly responded to Biden, dismissing Romney's "47 percent" comment as a slip of the tongue.
"Mitt Romney's a good man. He cares about 100 percent of Americans in this country," Ryan said. "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."
Biden, as he did throughout the debate, laughed, before he cast Ryan's assessment of the economy as negative.
"I've never met two guys who're more down on America across the board," Biden said. "We're told everything's going bad. There are 5.2 million new jobs, private-sector jobs. We need more, but 5.2 million -- if they'd get out of the way, if they'd get out of the way and let us pass the tax cut for the middle class, make it permanent, if they get out of the way and pass the -- pass the jobs bill, if they get out of the way and let us allow 14 million people who are struggling to stay in their homes because their mortgages are upside down, but they never missed a mortgage payment, just get out of the way.
"And, by the way, they talk about this Great Recession if it fell out of the sky, like, 'Oh, my goodness, where did it come from?' It came from this man voting to put two wars on a credit card, to at the same time put a prescription drug benefit on the credit card, a trillion-dollar tax cut for the very wealthy," Biden continued. "I was there. I voted against them. I said, no, we can't afford that"
Sharp exchange on stimulus funds
When Ryan shot back at Biden over the stimulus money that went to failed new energy companies like Solyndra, Biden was quick to turn the attack back on his counterpart.
"Let's not forget that they came in with one-party control," Ryan said. "When Barack Obama was elected, his party controlled everything. They had the ability to do everything of their choosing. And look at where we are right now.
"They passed the stimulus. The idea that we could borrow $831 billion, spend it on all of these special interest groups, and that it would work out just fine, that unemployment would never get to 8 percent -- it went up above 8 percent for 43 months. They said that, right now, if we just passed this stimulus, the economy would grow at 4 percent. It's growing at 1.3."
"Look at just the $90 billion in stimulus. The vice president was in charge of overseeing this. $90 billion in green pork to campaign contributors and special interest groups."
Instead of offering statistics showing that 23 of 26 new energy companies receiving stimulus money are, unlike Solyndra, still in business, Biden went after Ryan for stimulus hypocrisy.
"I love my friend here," a smiling Biden said. "I -- I'm not allowed to show letters but go on our website, he sent me two letters saying, 'By the way, can you send me some stimulus money for companies here in the state of Wisconsin?' We sent millions of dollars."
Pressed by Raddatz, Ryan acknowledged that he "advocated for constituents who were applying for grants."
"I love that. I love that," Biden shot back. "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."
More contrasts on Medicare, taxes
Both also engaged in a spirited debate over Medicare, with Ryan accusing Democratic critics of trying to “scare people” about a plan that would give future retirees a choice, including vouchers.
He also repeated the Romney campaign's attack that the administration turned Medicare “into a piggy bank for Obamacare.”
Biden, responding by speaking straight to the camera, argued that the Ryan vouchers would cost the average senior citizen $6,400 a year, according to the Congressional Budget Office. He touted higher prescription drug benefits for seniors as well.
"Folks, who do you trust on this?" Biden asked.
And when Raddatz turned the discussion to taxes, Biden ripped the Republicans for pushing to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, saying "they’re holding hostage the middle-class tax cut to the superwealthy," calling this "unconscionable."
"There is no need for this. The middle class got knocked on their heels," Biden said. "The great recession crushed them. They need some help now. The last people who need help are 120,000 families for another -- another $500 billion tax cut over the next 10 years."
Ryan responded by saying the administration would raise the effective tax rate on small businesses to more than 40 percent and that he and Romney would cut taxes for everyone without hurting the middle class.
"Not mathematically possible," Biden interrupted.
"It is mathematically possible," Ryan insisted.