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Keeler: Joe Biden never stopped swinging, edging out Paul Ryan in VP debate

Vice President Joe Biden and Republican vice presidential

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

For some odd reason, maybe his hair or maybe the smile, as I watched Paul Ryan during the vigorous exchanges with Joe Biden, I kept thinking of Harry Potter’s classmate and nemesis, Draco Malfoy.

Maybe because his math is magical. But I have to admit, though his numbers weren’t any more convincing on this stage in Kentucky than they have been on the campaign trail, Ryan did hang in there reasonably well against the more seasoned Biden. He didn’t have a Dan Quayle moment.

Nor did Joe Biden, to his credit, have a Barack-Obama-Last-Week moment. Or Martha Raddatz have a Jim Lehrer moment. Her mixture of knowledge and assertiveness—and an admirable lack of awe—served the viewers and the nation well.

We'll have to wait for the polls to tell us who won the debate, but neither man seemed to step in a gigantic pothole—or a landmine.

Speaking of land mines, Ryan attempted to show off his geopolitical savvy by describing the fighting season in Afghanistan—to Biden, who has been there multiple times—but the fighting season was going on all night in Kentucky. And when Ryan griped that fewer Americans are fighting the Taliban, Biden parried: “That’s right, we’re sending in more Afghans to do the job.” He liked the sound of that so much that he repeated it: “Afghans to do the job.”

One of Biden’s most effective lines of the evening, given the way the American people have soured on the war in Afghanistan, was this: “The last thing America needs is to get in another ground war in the Middle East.” Biden’s response to Ryan’s assertions of weakness on Syria. “What would my friend do different? If you notice, he never answers the question."

The two of them talked soberly about their religion, Ryan primarily about the question of abortion, Biden primarily about Catholic social teaching.

“Catholic social doctrine talks about those who can’t take care of themselves,” Biden put it—not a bad summary of a carefully wrought teaching that covers a broad swath of issues. Ryan’s take on Catholic social teaching has focused almost solely on its principle of subsidiarity, which he interprets as simply an endorsement of smaller government, but which has far broader meanings.

Ryan made it very clear that the Romney administration would be pro-life, though Romney has been dancing around it in recent days. Biden accepted the church’s teaching that human life begins at conception, but said he was unwilling to impose that view on others. But neither candidate pointed out the drop in the numbers of abortions under President Bill Clinton, which is attributable to the robust economy. Simply put, when times are tough, and pregnant women don’t have the wherewithal to carry their babies to term, abortions go up. This didn’t get discussed.

Kinetically, this was a far superior debate to the ho-hum, yawn-inducing event last week in Denver. Hard to say whether the president fell victim to altitude sickness last week, as Al Gore suggested, but both candidates were clearly getting enough oxygen this week. The commentariat was scoring it in the moments after it ended, but last week's debate didn't need a round-by-round analysis: It was a victory by default for Romney.

This time around, Biden never stopped swinging, and on balance, I thought he helped the president's re-election campaign.