Democratic Vice President Joe Biden and Republican vice-presidential nominee Rep....

Democratic Vice President Joe Biden and Republican vice-presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin shake hands after the vice-presidential debate at Centre College in Danville, Ky. (Oct. 11, 2012) Credit: AP

In a spirited, freewheeling vice-presidential debate dominated by the economy, Democratic Vice President Joe Biden and Republican nominee Rep. Paul Ryan both vigorously defended the positions of their running mates and drew a stark contrast between each side's vision for the country.

Both candidates spent the final moments of the debate Thursday night making the pitch that their ticket would improve the country's fiscal outlook.

Biden, who said he and President Barack Obama had inherited an economy in free fall, said, "We acted to move to bring relief to the people who need the most help now."

He added that he had spent his entire career fighting to "level the playing field" for the middle class.

Ryan said of running mate Mitt Romney, "At a time when we have a jobs crisis, wouldn't it be great to have a jobs creator in the White House?"

And Ryan painted Obama as a liberal spender who had not kept his campaign promises and had not put a "credible plan on the table" for tackling the nation's ever-expanding deficit.

Biden said his administration would enact middle-class tax cuts while eliminating them for wealthy Americans, and Ryan said his philosophy was "to grow the economy and create jobs."

The exchanges were lively and testy at times, with Biden referring to Ryan as "my friend" and often smiling and laughing derisively while Ryan was speaking.

When Biden kept interrupting Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican at one point turned and said, "I know you're under a lot of duress to make up for lost ground," referring to Obama's performance in the first presidential debate.

Throughout the night, Biden made reference to a Romney remark made in a video of a private fundraiser that 47 percent of Americans relied on government services.

Biden said Romney believes that "47 percent of the American people are unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives," adding: "These people are my mom and dad, the people I grew up with, my neighbors. He's talking about the people who built this country."

When Ryan reminded the gaffe-prone Biden that "sometimes the words don't come out of your mouth the right way" Biden shot back: "But I say what I mean."

Among the other domestic issues they differed on was abortion. Ryan, a Catholic, recalling viewing the ultrasound of his firstborn child, said that while he believes "life begins at inception" and was anti-abortion, Romney's policy would "oppose abortion with exceptions" such as in cases of rape and incest.

Biden, also Catholic, said that while he respected the Catholic church's position on abortion, the decision should not rest with the government but between "them and their doctor."

On health care, Biden came out in defense of the president's health care overhaul, while Ryan called for reforms to the Medicare and Social Security systems and charged Obama's policy would take money from the Medicare system.

While noting that his mother had benefited from Medicare, Ryan said the program was on the verge of bankruptcy and needed reform so that those 55 and under would fall under a revamped program.

Biden said the administration would not privatize Medicare and said Romney's plan would raise the cost of medical care for middle class Americans.

"Folks, follow your instincts on this one," said Biden. "We will not privatize [Medicare]. Their ideas are old and their ideas are bad."

But Ryan countered: "This is what politicians do when they don't have a record to run on . . . they try to scare people."

The contenders also fielded questions about foreign affairs, including the U.S's future role in Afghanistan. Biden said while the U.S. was withdrawing troops, and intended to be out by 2014, U.S. trained Afghan police would continue to provide security in the country.

"We're sending more Afghans to do the job," Biden said.

Ryan countered that drawing down the troops meant fewer troops were being sent to do the same jobs. And he declined to say exactly when a Romney administration would take out U.S. troops, saying it would "broadcast to our enemies" American strategy.

On Syria, Biden defended the administration's policy, saying any kind of intervention had to be weighed very carefully because "if it blows up" it could start a regional war.

"What more would they do?" Biden asked of a Romney approach. "The last thing America needs is to put more ground troops in the Middle East."

Ryan said he was not advocating military intervention but attacked Obama for not taking action sooner to support the freedom fighters and for being too passive.

The two candidates also traded barbs on taxes, as Biden questioned Romney's tax cutting proposals.

Ryan said a Romney administration would call for a 20 percent tax cut, but Biden called the measure mathematically "impossible," countering the tax loopholes would be absorbed by middle class Americans.

Ryan attacked Obama's proposal to reduce military spending, saying the downsizing of military personnel would "invite weakness." But Biden defended the administration's stance saying while moving toward a leaner military, there would be an increased focus on bolstering the nation's special forces.

The attack on Sept. 11 that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Steven in Libya was the first subject in the 90-minute debate between Biden and Ryan with the moderator asking if the attack was a "massive failure" in security in intelligence.

Biden said the Obama administration would "find and bring" the killer to justice, arguing that the intelligence given to the president at the time was that the attack was from protesters.

Ryan countered: "It took the president two weeks to acknowledge this was a terrorist attack."

Biden shot back, that Ryan's proposed budget, included $300 million in cuts in embassy security spending.

On the prospect of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, Ryan portrayed the Obama administration as being too slow to act in imposing sanctions. "They're four years closer to a nuclear weapon," he said.

Biden said, "Let's all calm down a little bit here" and said Iran has been "totally isolated" thanks to sanctions imposed by the administration. "We will not let Iran acquire a nuclear weapon."

Biden and Ryan were both looking to shore up support for their running mates in an increasingly tight presidential race.

Biden, a seasoned veteran of the U.S. Senate who once chaired the Senate foreign relations and judiciary committees, defended the Obama administration's four years of policies, against Ryan, a 14-year U.S. representative from Wisconsin who as chair of the House Budget Committee was often at odds with Obama's proposals.

The debate, held at Centre College in Danville, Ky., covered both foreign and domestic policy questions divided into ten segments. Each candidate had two minutes to respond to questions from moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News, but throughout the debate often spoke over the limit

Hours before the debate, both candidates expressed confidence in their upcoming performance.

"I'm not intimidated, I'm actually excited about it," Ryan told CNN.

"Looking forward to it," Biden said as he boarded his plane headed to Kentucky.

While both are well versed in domestic policy issues, the debate was expected to highlight their contrast in styles — Biden's "folksy" freewheeling speech often laden with gaffes to Ryan's "policy wonk" reliance on stats and figures to support his points.

Both have spent several days surrounded by aides, undergoing hours of policy briefings and practicing for the exchange.

Biden spent three days at a hotel in Wilmington, Del., competing in mock debates against Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) playing the role of Ryan.

Ryan spent three days in "debate camp" in central Virginia, and two days this week in St. Petersburg, Fla., debating former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson, serving as Biden's stand-in.

The nation's attention will turn to Long Island on Tuesday, when Obama and Biden will have their second debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead. The debate is billed as a town hall format, with both men will take questions from a group of undecided voters. CNN political reporter Candy Crowley will serve as moderator.

Obama will look to reverse the trend of polling figures that show Romney gaining. A daily presidential tracking poll by the polling firm Rasmussen Reports showed Obama leading Romney by one percentage point 48-47, with two percent of respondents preferring another candidate and three percent undecided.

The final presidential debate will take place in the swing state of Florida on Oct. 22 at Lynn University, in Boca Raton, with a focus on foreign policy issues.

With The Associated Press

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