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Gary Younge
Biden and Ryan fight to a bloodied draw in VP debate

"Once there were two brothers," Thomas Marshall, the 28th vice-president, said. "One went away to sea; the other was elected vice-president. And nothing was heard of either of them again."

It says something about what's going on the top of the ticket that so many would want to hear from the two vice-presidential contenders. After seven years of running for office, Mitt Romney only managed to introduce himself to the American public in a favourable light last week, and needed to build on that. After six years building a reputation as a formidable orator, Barack Obama managed to come across as a distracted lightweight just over a month before polling day. Since then, erratic polls suggest a volatile electorate which is neither sufficiently satisfied with the incumbent, nor sufficiently impressed by his opponent, to make up its mind. And in a situation where anything can happen, everything matters. Even vice-presidential debates.

Both Joe Biden and Paul Ryan were tasked with different goals for the night underpinned by one basic maxim: do no harm. For Biden, known for his logorrhoea, that meant no gaffes; for Ryan, unknown still to most Americans, that meant presenting himself as a plausible candidate to be a heartbeat from the presidency. Both achieved that, though Biden came closest to blowing it.

Beyond that, however, Ryan had to continue the upward trend his boss started last week, while Biden had to dig his team out of the hole his boss dug last week. Neither achieved that, although Biden came closest to achieving it.

By far the most impressive person on the stage was the moderator, Martha Raddatz. Asking incisive questions, pushing for cogent answers, calmly prodding for clarity and brevity. She kept them in line and, as much as is possible, on point.

That was no mean feat. Biden was so combative that at times he appeared thuggish. He badgered, bulldozered, hectored and harassed. At some moments, the debate appeared to owe more to WWE than CNN. This was probably Biden overcompensating for his boss's lacklustre performance last week.

Occasionally he overdid it. Where some had questioned whether Obama had taken a sleeping pill, Biden looked like he was on steroids. For much of the evening, this worked. But his digs could be gratuitous, and his exasperation overly theatrical. "You're Jack Kennedy now?" he said after Ryan once mentioned the former president. At times the age difference, along with the smirking, eye rolling and forceful interventions, made him look like an angry father taking his impudent son to the woodshed.

Ryan parried this well. He was competent, knowledgeable and likeable enough. He broke no hearts and swung no votes. But he turned no stomachs and lost no votes, either.

For Biden, however, it was a high-risk strategy to come across so angry, particularly at a time when Democrats are losing women voters. But while he lost some with his aggression, there were others he undoubtedly won over with his authenticity. "Just get out the way!" he told Ryan at one point. "Stop talking about how you care about people and show me something!"

Ryan, though, was so evasive at times that it would have been rude for Biden not to intervene. Asked specifics, either by Raddatz or Biden, Ryan would talk only in generalities. Asked what he would do differently, he would simply offer a marginally different talking point. There were moments when he was so on message that you expected him to end his contribution with the words: "my name's Paul Ryan and I approved this message."

No debacle was anticipated and none occurred. No breakthrough was anticipated and none occurred either. They fought to a bloodied draw in which Biden won on substance and Ryan won on style. Now both can sail off to sea, never to be heard of again.

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