SALT LAKE CITY — The vice-presidential debate Thursday night struck most observers as a closely fought draw, with both sides showing strength where they needed it.
A CNN flash poll of registered voters after the debate showed Ryan as a slight 48-44 percent winner, within the margin of error, while a CNN focus group of undecided voters split evenly, 1/3 for each candidate and 1/3 undecided on the question of who won the debate.
Neither vice-presidential candidate lived up to their reputation, for better or worse.
Often described as gaffe-prone, Biden came on strong, focused and in charge. But he was also overbearing, persistently interrupting his younger challenger, and frequently making faces and rolling his eyes while Ryan spoke.
The wonky numbers-crunching Ryan, on the other hand, slipped into a robotic delivery at times, where he relied on campaign talking points. Twice in the debate, Ryan resorted to Romney's five point plan, ticking off each of the points.
One undecided voter in the CNN focus group may have spoken for many when she said, "I did not think either candidate did well. I felt like I watched 90 minutes of campaign ads."
The funniest moment in the debate was when Ryan defended Mitt Romney's 47 percent remark by pointing out that "the Vice President knows that sometimes the words don't come out of your mouth the right way." Biden retorted that he always says what he means, and that Romney likewise meant that comment.
At Fox News, the Frank Luntz focus group found that the debate did not move a single undecided voter, quite different than last week when many shifted to Romney.
Biden's smirking and interrupting seemed calculated to compensate for Obama's passivity last week, and was probably designed to convey energy to the Democratic base, still demoralized from Romney's big win against Obama.
But the mannerisms did not sit well with some neutral observers.
Howard Fineman of Huffington Post tweeted, "Biden is hitting all the talking points that Obama didn't. But is Joe doing it in a winning way or a desperate way?"
"Biden's smirking is starting to strobe through my TV screen. Disturbing," tweeted CNN's Piers Morgan, and NBC's David Gregory tweeted, "Biden's smile is out of control." "Biden's constant sighing is reminding of Gore's constant sighting in 2000," tweeted NBC's Betsy Fischer Martin.
As the debate moved along, Biden seemed to sense he had overplayed his hand and pulled back measurably. The interruptions fell off and the split screen became less entertaining.
Most commentators seemed to agree that the much younger Ryan had passed the threshold test, just by staying on the stage with the more experienced incumbent.
At CNN, Gloria Borger said "Not only did he pass the threshold, but he exhibited a fluency in foreign policy." Borger said that either he learned something in all those years in congress, or he studied hard.
"They both overstudied," cut in Alex Castellanos, noting that with Romney he would have preferred to see Ryan use "more pictures, and less math."
The debate focused heavily on foreign policy, which naturally played to the more experienced Biden, who had served as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Ryan could not really parry attacks by Biden (and the moderator) regarding what his standards would be for U.S. intervention in Syria or Iran.
He was also pressed to explain what criterion the Romney administration might use to determine when it would be appropriate to withdraw from Afghanistan. He said he supported the 2014 time line, but argued it should depend on conditions and that signaling a hard withdrawal date only emboldened the enemy.
The CNN focus group tracker found that women tended to rate Ryan more highly, but there was one moment in the debate when Ryan's numbers on the tracker--which measures the real time responses of selected voters--fell considerably. It was when he was explaining his position on abortion and how his Catholic faith influenced it. As he spoke, the tracker which generally hovered above or at neutral dipped noticeably negative -- more for women than men, but for both.
The comment was a bit awkward, as the Romney camp had sought to assure swing voters this week that there would no abortion policy agenda in a Romney administration, a reassurance that Ryan did not really tack on to his comment.
An odd moment in the debate occurred when the moderator asked each of them to respond to criticism from a veteran that the campaign has been too negative. Both Ryan and Biden paid tribute to the veteran, and then made only an oblique run at the question before launching harsh attacks on the other camp through the remainder of their response.
Air time between the two candidates was roughly even, according to CNN, which Biden holding the floor for 1:20 more than Ryan.