10:55 pm ET
Candidate grades are based on both performance and success in using the debate to improve their ticket’s standing in the election.
Style: Started out understandably on edge, but used his natural confidence and born fighter verve to battle past his nerves. Did a mini-Romney, throughout: firm and tough, presented his case as planned, unflinchingly hard on the Obama administration without self-consciousness or overt hostility. Waited patiently to answer questions (in contrast to his opponent), then replied cleanly with prepared statements. Clearly rehearsed, but managed to appear candid and comfortable. A strong advocate for his boss, selling Romney generally as a “car guy” with big ideas, big skills, and a big heart.
Substance: Nitpicked at the Obama foreign policy, but didn’t wrap the criticism with a tight thematic bow. Neatly and purposefully blurred lines between the parties on Afghanistan, Iraq; tried to win the argument on taxes, but went more for smoothed edges on Medicare and Social Security. Surprisingly, didn’t talk up Romney’s specific plans very much, favoring an overview defense of conservative principles and a critique of Obama.
His worst moment: After wisely maintaining a cool façade in contrast to Biden’s stylistic antics for the early part of the debate, lost his rhythm and became too smug and smart alecky in his responses, forfeiting what could have been an even bigger edge.
His best moment: Hitting Biden on the rise in unemployment in his beloved hometown of Scranton, PA during the Obama years.
The main thing: Democrats and perhaps others will criticize him as light and vague, but for those who have never seen Ryan before, he came off well for a running mate. Intelligent, calm, and mature. Never took any big risks or descended into wonkiness. Added some polish to the Romney cause, although he did not supercharge the Denver momentum. His team will be happy with this performance, and Romney can approach his next debate without any residual distraction. Key for Ryan’s future, win or lose in November: solidified his hold on a top spot among party leaders.
Style: Way too manic for most of the debate. Grinning, twitching, laughing, smirking, interrupting, blinking, sighing, stammering. Palpably over-rehearsed, although so innately genuine, able to get away with it better than most politicians. Didn’t show much grace, even at times arguing with the moderator (an excellent Martha Raddatz). Interjected, lectured, and showed off too much. Sometimes tried to make too many points in quick succession, speaking more to insiders than the country at large. A classic Bidenesque upshot — endearing and energizing to supporters; nails-on-a-blackboard to detractors. Calmed down for the last third of the debate, allowing his points to formulate without competition from his own theatrical verbal and physical tics.
Substance: Offered strong, serious critiques of the Romney/Ryan records and plans, but often failed to link up his charges with a real-life implication for real people. Took pains to defend the President’s record and use the warehouse of knowledge in his head to indict the opposition. Left some unanswered questions on Benghazi that Republicans are sure to pursue.
His worst moment: His opening series of off-key laughs and forced smiles obscured much of his good work on the party’s high cards of taxes and Medicare, and on Romney’s thin critique of the administration’s national security record.
His best moment: Trumping the confusing back and forth on national security with a single tough and folksy line about the other ticket: “These guys bet against America all the time.”
The main thing: In a debate without much news or many breakthrough moments, Biden’s overheated style is almost sure to be the media, late-night laugher, and conservative takeaway from the ninety minutes. Biden didn’t commit any major disasters, but surrendered the gravitas edge. Democratic partisans will say he fought hard and schooled Ryan on every topic; many others will find his an odd, off-putting performance, far too lacking in the many attractive aspects of Biden’s personality. But his substantive strength and intense passion may soothe the frisson of agonized panic shivering through his party in the wake of the Denver disaster. Obama can borrow a few elements of Biden’s performance, but the over-the-top aggressiveness won’t be seen again on the Democratic side in the remaining two debates.