Viewers of oft-overlooked VP debate say it matters

By Adam Geller

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Oct. 12 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Supporters of Republican vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan, of Wisconsin, gather at the Holiday Inn Express in Janesville, Wis. to watch his debate with Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012.

The Janesville Gazette, Mark Kauzlarich, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

Roger Munson has heard the conventional wisdom: Vice presidential debates aren't supposed to matter. But in an election this close, he and millions of others tuned in Thursday to a candidate faceoff that many said may not have changed their vote, but firmed their resolve about just how much is at stake.

Munson, a self-described conservative who drove into the heart of largely liberal Seattle to watch the debate broadcast at a civic hall, came hoping to hear Rep. Paul Ryan champion the values he believes in. But when it began, even hearing stands taken by Vice President Joe Biden that he firmly disagrees with held some value.

"Watching this debate and all the information you glean on this very important election, ... of the two very different approaches of where this country is heading, I think it was very important," said Munson, 69, a retired nonprofit manager and former Army captain.

On a night that offered television viewers two baseball playoff games and an NFL matchup, many voters across the country nonetheless made room Thursday for 90 minutes of pugnacious debate, the only one scheduled between Biden and Ryan. A little more than a week after a presidential debate that lifted the candidacy of Mitt Romney and knocked President Barack Obama's campaign back a step, this debate, which wasn't supposed to matter, took on a heightened importance.

From a bar in Las Vegas to a hotel in Janesville, Wis., from a college campus in Savannah, Ga., to a gathering of retirees in Chicago, and in the crowds that gathered outside the debate hall itself in Danville, Ky., voters seized on the debate as much more than theater or politics as usual.

Still, there was disagreement on whether Biden or Ryan did better framing the issues, whether the vice president was too argumentative or justifiably aggressive, and whether his younger challenger was up to the task.

The civic hall crowd in Seattle erupted into cheers for every verbal jab and grin by Biden. The vice president "was extremely aggressive and he needed to be," said Art Segal, a 60-year-old substitute teacher, who leans Democratic but also says Obama has broken many promises, such as offshore oil exploration drilling.

Before the debate Segal, who thought Obama had been unprepared for the first debate, said he was looking for Biden to "deconstruct" Ryan's arguments. He was not disappointed Thursday night.

"Biden's my guy," he said.

But that sentiment was far from unanimous.

Gwen Swaney, an 82-year-old Republican who lives in Pittsburgh, said she came into the debate as a committed Romney-Ryan voter, and found Biden's conduct puzzling.

"I expected a little more from Biden. There was no reason for him to keep laughing and making fun of Ryan," Swaney said. "I thought Biden was rude and crude." Swaney said she felt Biden was trying to intimidate Ryan, "and it didn't work."

The partisan split was similar in Georgia, where 35 students at Savannah State University watched Biden and Ryan at a debate party sponsored by a political science club. After pizza, chicken wings and mocktails of ginger ale and cherry juice, the group cheered and laughed as an animated Biden rebutted Ryan for attacks the vice president called "a bunch of malarkey" and "full of stuff."

"It definitely felt like a role reversal" from last week's presidential debate, when Mitt Romney was considered the aggressor, said Abrigale Johnson, a 23-year-old senior history major. "Biden's style was similar to Mitt Romney's — it was on the attack."

Jadon Forbes, a 22-year-old senior studying international comparative politics, said he went into the debate believing that Biden needed to "be the spark plug," needed to recharge the faith of Democratic voters. The vice president delivered, he said.

"He was blunt, but I don't think he was too blunt," Forbes said of Biden. "He took the formality down a little with his commentary. He definitely kept the energy up and kept Ryan on his toes."

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