WASHINGTON -- Vice President Joe Biden came on strong against his GOP rival Paul Ryan last night as they battled over Medicare, the economy and Mideast policy in a high-stakes debate in a presidential race that has tightened considerably in the past week.
As expected, sparks and statistics flew as Biden and Ryan sought to pick up where President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney left off in their Oct. 3 debate, after which the campaign momentum shifted to Romney.
Biden, 69, came out of the gates charging, challenging Ryan, 42, on every point. He let no Ryan criticism of Obama go unanswered, often interrupted him and called his positions and arguments "malarkey," "bluster" and "loose talk."
Attacking Romney and Ryan for their proposals on the economy and entitlements, Biden said, "Their ideas are old, and their ideas are bad, and they eliminate the guarantee of Medicare."
Ryan held his ground, shooting back when he could, though with less colorful language. He accused the Obama administration of weakness on Middle East policy and criticized the president for a failed domestic economic policy. He also hit Obama on the budget deficit and the economy.
"But we're going in the wrong direction. Look at where we are. The economy is barely limping along," Ryan said.
"They passed a stimulus, the idea that we could borrow $831 billion, spend it all on these special interest groups and that it would work out just fine, that unemployment would never get to 8 percent," Ryan said.
"It went up above 8 percent for 43 months."
Ryan responded with a jab at Biden's proclivity for gaffes. "I think the vice president knows that sometimes the words don't come out right," he said.
"That little soliloquy on 47 percent, and you think he just made a mistake, then I think I got a bridge to sell you," Biden responded.
The stakes for the vice-presidential debate, usually not considered key to a presidential campaign's success, rose dramatically after what even Obama has conceded was a bad night in Denver eight days earlier.
After one Biden interruption Ryan referred to that predicament, telling Biden: "I know you're under a lot of duress to make up for lost ground."
From the start of the debate, held at Centre College in Danville, Ky., Biden avoided making the kind of gaffes for which he is known. Ryan held his own, though he became testy at times about the interruptions.
Both men sat at a table on a stage before a live audience, with moderator Martha Raddatz, an ABC senior foreign affairs correspondent, who kept a strong hand on the tiller, keeping the debate flowing.
The first question she asked was about Libya, and the tragic killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in an attack on the U.S. Embassy.
Biden laughed and rejected those charges, saying the Obama administration would bring the attackers to justice and determine what happened.
Later, they tackled Medicare, the seniors' health insurance program that Ryan has proposed to change by allowing recipients get vouchers to buy private insurance. Biden attacked the Ryan plans for turning the program into a voucher program, and turned to the audience and said, "Who do you trust?"
Ryan replied, "If we don't fix this problem, pretty soon then current seniors get cut. Here's the problem: 10,000 people are retiring every single day in America today and they will for 20 years. That's not a political thing, that's a math thing."
In arguing about tax policy, they differed on the benefits of allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire for the wealthy.
Ryan said they should. "Jack Kennedy cut taxes," he said.
"Oh, now you're Jack Kennedy," Biden said.