DANVILLE, Ky. — Joe Biden’s dominant, if sneering, performance in Thursday’s debate stabilized a shaken Obama campaign and put the full pressure of the presidential campaign back on the President of the United States.
Biden offered the forceful defense of his Administration that Barack Obama failed to deliver last week, with a harsh, patronizing edge that seemed calculated to restore the faith of the demoralized Democratic base.
“Stopping the momentum is a win,” said Chris Lehane, a former aide to Al Gore, who described the Democrat as “smoking Joe Biden.”
The Romney campaign sought to focus on Biden’s patronizing demeanor, something that was more striking inside the debate hall at Centre College.
Inside the debate hall, Biden appeared more combative — reaching out toward Ryan as he cut him off, and smirking as the congressman answered questions. The image wasn’t quite captured on television, where Biden’s more endearing side prevailed.
Ryan did his ticket no harm with a careful and steady cut and thrust, sometime hard to follow though Biden’s noises and gesticulations, and did no harm to his own prospects, should Obama be re-elected.
But the stakes were higher for the Democrats. Biden has earned a reputation for straying from the script, to occasionally disastrous effect, and campaign officials were unable to conceal a level of nerves in the run-up to the debate. President Obama, meanwhile, had horrified his party with a weak and stumbling performance, and the party faced the threat that donors and activists would feel that the president and his running mate were giving them little to work for.
Democrats said they were elated that Obama’s core supporters had gotten what they wanted.
“I think that a lot of people saw the passion that Joe Biden has,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who chairs the Democratic Governors Association and was left in the spin room almost entirely along last week to defend Obama on cable television.
“For moms and dads and people that have been volunteering on the Obama campaign, I think they were watching at home and saying, ‘Thank goodness Joe Biden is mixing it up with these guys and not letting them get away with spewing their stuff without getting challenged,” he said.
There was no reason to believe, on the other hand, that the debate had dramatically changed the race’s underlying dynamic in the wake of last week's blowout. A series of state polls have suggested that a race that threatened to slip entirely out of Romney’s reach is again competitive, with new leads in Florida, Virginia, and Colorado.
Biden, said Lehane, “likely could never be this aggressive and passionate as a presidential candidate — but as a proxy it was effective, as defined as arresting the momentum.”
Republicans did not try to cast the debate as a hands-down win for the sometimes-tentative Ryan, but argued that he did well enough in a race that appears to be moving their direction, with one recent Florida poll showing Romney with a lead in the key state. The running mate did exactly what the campaign hoped, said Romney policy advisor Lanhee Chen, by laying out the “bold choice” in this election.
"Nothing tonight changed the underlying dynamic of the race,” said Michael Steel, a Ryan spokesman, adding that the election is always going to be about the person at the top of the ticket.
“First do no harm,” said another top Romney aide. “They needed a knockout and didn't get it.”