WASHINGTON — Meet Joe Biden, relief pitcher with some heat.
After President Obama struggled in his debate against Republican Mitt Romney last week, the vice president came out and threw a set of sizzling rebuttals and charges at Representative Paul Ryan in the showdown between the two presidential running mates.
This performance was much closer to what the Democrats’ argument looks like, delivered in passionate, sometimes even pugilistic, style.
Biden appeared as aggressive Thursday night as Obama was cautious last week — to the point of frequently interrupting his opponent, grinning sarcastically, and shaking his head in disgust.
After a terrible week of fallout that showed Romney surging to even or better with Obama in the polls, Biden’s task Thursday was to blunt Romney’s momentum by firmly articulating the Democrats’ critique of his positions.
He dredged up most of the Obama campaign’s criticism of the former Massachusetts governor. He mentioned Romney’s own 14 percent effective tax rate, his statements about letting Detroit go bankrupt, and his disparaging comments — secretly captured on videotape — about 47 percent of Americans who do not pay federal income taxes.
For all of Biden’s bluster and stridency, Ryan remained poised, good-humored, well prepared — and presented himself as a plausible occupant of high office.
He fought Biden closely every step of the way without losing his cool.
When Biden brought up Romney’s comments about the 47 percent quote, Ryan was ready with a prepared zinger that referenced Biden’s tendency to commit gaffes.
“With respect to that quote, the vice president very well knows that sometimes the words don’t come out of your mouth the right way,’’ Ryan remarked, drawing laughter.
Ryan’s performance eclipsed that of some past Republican vice presidential candidates who had little experience on the national stage, including Sarah Palin and Dan Quayle.
He cemented his standing as one of the most politically skilled conservatives in the Republican Party.
He demonstrated a strong command of tax policy, even while refusing to get specific about how a Romney administration would pay for its 20 percent cut in tax rates, which would cost $4.8 trillion over 10 years.
His performance reassured Republicans and could be attractive to wavering independents.
Based on the lively showdown, the Democrats came away with a narrow win or at least a split verdict. They certainly avoided dropping to 0-and-2 in the debates, which could have triggered a crisis in the campaign.
Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, said he was surprised how much of the debate turned on foreign policy, a subject that Biden — former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — knows well.
“I thought he was most effective talking about foreign policy,’’ said Scala. “In terms of some of his demeanor, he seemed the most serious, and statesmanlike then.
“He didn’t do a lot of the chuckling and laughing that he did [on domestic policy], which got distracting after a while and even annoying. It got awfully chippy.’’
But Biden and the Obama campaign evidently decided to err on the side of a bracing fight.
They are struggling to reenergize a dispirited base after Obama’s dismal performance and polls that have tightened nationally and in some swing states.
Ryan — at 42, he is 27 years younger than Biden — perhaps faced an even more difficult challenge.
Introducing himself to an audience in his first nationally televised debate, he needed to demonstrate he would be prepared to assume the presidency if called upon.
He simultaneously needed to weather Biden’s attacks while articulating a forward-looking vision for a ticket. Scala said he appeared to be successful.
“You could envision him being in the office,’’ he said.
But Scala said Biden appeared to get the better of Ryan toward the end of the debate, on the question of abortion and appointments to the Supreme Court, an especially important issue for women.
The candidates fought hard for the support of middle-class voters and the elderly.
Both candidates sought to emphasize their origins in working class communities, Biden from Scranton, Pa., and Ryan from Janesville, Wis.
Biden made several direct appeals to the camera, telling people to “trust your instincts’’ about the Romney plan to introduce a voucher program to Medicare.
“I’ve had it up to here,” Biden said as the subject turned to the economy and federal tax policy. “It’s about time they take some responsibility here.
“Instead of signing pledges with Grover Norquist . . . they should be signing a pledge to the middle class saying we’re going to level the playing field,” Biden said.
His reference was to the pledges both Republicans made to Norquist’s organization, Americans for Tax Reform, never to raise taxes.
Ryan was ready with a stock retort from his stump speeches, which did not have quite the same zip. The middle class, he said, needs Romney and Ryan.
“This is not what a real recovery looks like,’’ Ryan said. “We need real reforms for a real recovery.’’