DANVILLE, Ky. — Feisty and combative, Vice President Joe Biden and challenger Paul Ryan turned their only debate Thursday night into a relentless, quick-moving exchange that outlined stark differences between their campaigns.
From foreign policy to federal spending to health care, Biden and Ryan used statistics, rhetorical jabs, and even humor to fashion a pointed discussion that differed strikingly from the debate last week in which President Obama often seemed listless and disengaged.
The candidates challenged each other when they disagreed on the facts, delivering their arguments with confidence, and brought a mutual passion to the debate at Centre College.
The debate opened with US foreign policy — in Iran, North Africa, and the Middle East — and whether the deaths of four Americans in Libya one month ago had been the result of a massive intelligence failure. It moved to what approach the United States should take to the Iranian nuclear program.
Biden defended the Obama administration’s use of sanctions, which he says is crippling Iran, and warned that Mitt Romney’s criticism of the president might lead the country to war.
“The president of the United States has led with a steady hand and clear vision. Governor Romney has not. The last thing we need now is another war,” Biden said.
Ryan countered that Obama’s reluctance to be tougher on Iran is a critical mistake. “The ayatollahs see these kinds of statements and say, ‘We’ll get a nuclear weapon,’ ” the Republican congressman said.
When the debate turned to the economy, Biden ripped into Romney for his comment in May about 47 percent of Americans not paying taxes, considering themselves “victims,” and being too dependent on government.
“These people are my mom and dad — the people I grew up with, my neighbors,” Biden said. “They pay more effective tax than Governor Romney pays in his federal income tax.”
Ryan defended Romney, and talked about the Nixon family from Northborough, Mass., whom Romney helped after their sons were in a car accident. He noted that Romney gave 30 percent of his income to charity, more than Ryan and Biden combined. And he argued that Romney’s “47 percent” comment was a slip of the tongue, and did not reflect how he really felt.
“I think the vice president knows, sometimes the words don’t come out of your mouth as you intend,” Ryan said.
“But I always say what I mean,” Biden rebutted with a smile.
“I don’t doubt his commitment to individuals,” Biden said of Romney, adding later, “Stop talking about how you care about people. Show me something. Show me a policy.”
Biden frequently referred to Ryan as “my friend,” a rhetorical tool frequently used in the Senate where he served for 36 years. He talked about him and Ryan engaging in a “soliloquy,” as senators do in that chamber.
Ryan criticized the Obama administration for the federal stimulus program, which Democrats cite as a reason the economy has improved, but Republicans have said is a boondoggle and a waste of federal tax dollars.
“I love my friend here!” Biden said. “He sent me two letters saying, by the way, ‘Can you send some stimulus money for companies here in the state of Wisconsin.’ ”
Ryan conceded that he had asked for federal stimulus funding for projects in his district, but said it was for constituent services.
The Obama administration, however, has failed to get the unemployment rate below 6 percent, as it suggested it could do with stimulus money, Ryan said.
“I don’t know how long it will take,” Biden said of getting the unemployment rate down to 6 percent. “We can and we will get it under 6 percent.”
Both candidates entered the debate under rising pressure in the final weeks of a close, hard-fought campaign. Biden, however, seemed to shoulder more of a burden in the aftermath of Obama’s passive performance last week in the first presidential debate in Denver.
Although vice presidential debates rarely affect the top of the ticket, Democrats hoped that Biden’s hard-hitting style would counter Ryan effectively and calm rising anxiety within the party. Since the Denver debate, some polls have showed Romney inching past Obama, whose lead has shriveled in many battleground states.
In that single debate last week, where Obama often seemed disengaged, Romney dramatically reset the dynamic of the campaign, which previously had been shifting slowly in Obama’s favor.
By contrast, Republicans were hopeful that Ryan’s down-to-earth demeanor and youthful confidence would appeal to millions of voters who heard him Thursday for the first time, as he tried to sell the deep budget cuts that he and Romney are proposing as a path toward fiscal stability.
But in the end, the debate was about the presidential candidates and how Biden and Ryan could tie the other to their policies. For Biden, he tried repeatedly to link Ryan to a budget plan, endorsed by Romney, that he said would decimate the safety net for tens of millions of Americans.
For Ryan, the plan was to paint a picture of failed economic stewardship by the president, an unsustainable deficit, and an unfocused foreign policy.
A seven-term Wisconsin congressman, Ryan prepared for the debate — his first on the national stage — with the kind of demanding repetition that he brings to his exhausting physical workouts, Republican aides said. Former solicitor general Ted Olson, who served under President George W. Bush, played Biden’s role during the rehearsals.
As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan brought deep, broad knowledge of federal spending to the debate. He also brought controversy because of his proposal, endorsed by Romney, that Medicare be overhauled by offering recipients a limited cash voucher to buy private insurance.
Obama and Biden have attacked that approach as dismantling the longstanding health-care compact between the elderly and government. Such vouchers, they argue, would not keep pace with rising medical costs and would impose an additional financial burden on people with limited, fixed incomes.
On foreign policy, Biden brought decades of experience that Ryan cannot match. In addition to his former role as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden has visited Afghanistan and Iraq a total of 20 times.
Ryan has traveled to Afghanistan three times and Iraq once.
The 90-minute debate, moderated by ABC News foreign affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz, introduced matters of foreign affairs to the debates. Last week, Obama and Romney focused exclusively on domestic topics.
With the eyes of the political world focused on Centre College, about 40 miles south of Lexington, the small liberal-arts campus was abuzz ahead of the debate. Around campus were posters dubbing it, “Thrill in the Ville.” A local whisky bar was serving cocktails — “Biden’s Tongue” and “Romney’s Rickey” — that were named after two men who do not drink alcohol.
The vice presidential debate was the second for Centre College, which hosted its first in 2000 between Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman.
Romney’s campaign was planning to hold 358 debate watch parties on Thursday night in 11 states. One state not on the list was Massachusetts, where Romney has his campaign headquarters, served as governor, and where the press release originated that announced the watch parties.
The Obama campaign on Thursday promoted what it called a superior get-out-the-vote effort, citing voter registration and early-voting statistics in the battleground states. In Iowa, for example, over 50,000 more Democrats have voted so far than Republicans, according to board of elections figures cited by the Obama campaign.
President Obama called his vice president in the afternoon to wish him luck.
Ryan was scheduled to appear Friday at a campaign rally in Youngstown, Ohio.Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@
globe.com. Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@