Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan said President Barack Obama is presiding over a “chaotic” foreign policy that’s making the U.S. “less safe,” as he began his debate tonight with Vice President Joe Biden.
Ryan also criticized the Obama administration for a lack of security in Libya before the Sept. 11 attack on the consulate in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, and for the administration’s original statement that the attack was part of a protest.
“This is becoming more troubling by the day,” said Ryan, Republican Mitt Romney’s running mate, as the 90-minute debate got underway at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky.
Biden said whatever mistakes had been made in the original assessment of the attack “will not be made again” and went after Romney and Ryan for not having a clear vision on foreign policy.
Biden also said, “With all due respect, that’s a bunch of malarkey,” in response to Ryan’s criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of the Benghazi attack and his charge that the president is advocating “devastating” defense cuts.
Tonight’s showdown took on greater significance after a majority of voters said Obama lost to Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, in their first debate on Oct. 3. Romney has gained in national and state polls since then.
The two presidential candidates will meet in two more debates later this month, while tonight’s forum is the only one between Biden and Ryan.
Before the debate, moderated by Martha Raddatz of ABC News, supporters of both candidates said the two would face a common enemy: their own words.
Biden’s task will be to limit his loquaciousness and avoid quips that might undermine administration positions, while Ryan must defend the two government spending plans he wrote as chairman of the House Budget Committee, their backers said.
“Joe’s challenge is to avoid saying something before he thinks about it,” said former Colorado Senator Gary Hart, who debated with Biden when both sought the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination. “He has to do a little editing as he goes along.”
For Ryan, the test will be how he defends the “Medicare issue,” as presented in the two budgets he shepherded through the House, said the chamber’s former speaker, Republican Dennis Hastert of Illinois. “Biden will take cheap shots on the budget and Paul will have to be prepared to come back at him.”
One of the most obvious contrasts between Biden and Ryan during tonight’s meeting may be their age.
Ryan, 42, was not quite 3 years old when Biden, 69, was first elected to the Senate in November 1972. Biden also plans to contrast their policies, focusing on Ryan’s budgets as a way to argue that the Republican ticket is out of touch with middle- income voters.
Ryan’s budget for this fiscal year, passed by the U.S. House 228-191 in March, called for changes in Medicare and cut food stamps, Pell grants for college students and other programs for the poor. It included $5.3 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years, increases in defense spending and lower tax rates for higher earners.
Both candidates took several days off from campaigning to get ready for the debate. Today, they made last-minute preparations and got a look at the stage.
“I am looking forward to it,” Biden told reporters in New Castle, Delaware, before boarding Air Force Two for the flight to Danville. Obama called his vice president from his own Air Force One flight to Florida to wish him luck.
Ryan spent the day at a Danville-area hotel, reading briefing binders, exercising and spending time with his family before surveying the debate site. He also took to the social networking site Twitter to signal he was ready for the face-off.
“Let’s get this done!” he said in a message posted on the site, along with a picture, apparently taken while he visited the debate stage, of him grinning as he sat at the table where he will face Biden.
While both Biden and Ryan have experience scrapping with congressional colleagues, Biden is more familiar with the nationally televised debate format. In the 2007-2008 Democratic presidential primary, he participated in more than a dozen debates, and won many of them, according to former Senator William Cohen, a Maine Republican.
Biden dropped out of that race after his fourth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, won by Obama.
“He’s a good debater,” Cohen said. “But Joe loves to talk. The Senate can be either a good training ground, or a handicap.”
Biden’s debate preparations included holing up in a hotel in Wilmington, Delaware, to spar with Representative Chris van Hollen of Maryland, who played Ryan in mock debates.
“The vice president has been through a lot of these,” said Ted Kaufman, a former Biden aide who filled the remainder of Biden’s Senate term after the 2008 presidential election. “The challenge for this one is figuring out which Congressman Ryan is going to show up.”
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