Vice President Democrat Joe Biden, and Republican vice presidential candidate Congressman Paul Ryan engaged in often contentious debate Thursday over how President Barack Obama or Mitt Romney would lead the nation after the November 6 election.
Coming into the debate, analysts said it would be Biden's job to do what President Obama failed to do against Republican Mitt Romney in their first encounter -- fight hard and respond forcefully to positions taken by Ryan.
In his first national level debate, Ryan's task was to defend as reasonable and necessary proposals to sharply slim down the federal government and make radical changes to programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
Foreign policy led off the debate. Asked if the killing of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya was a "massive intelligence failure" Biden called what happened a tragedy and defended the administration response.
"We will find and bring to justice the men who did this and secondly we will get to the bottom of it and wherever the facts lead us, wherever they lead us we will make clear to the American public because whatever mistakes were made will not be made again," Biden said.
Ryan challenged initial Obama administration explanations that the Benghazi attack was linked to an anti-Islam video and asked why security at the U.S. consulate was deficient.
"Our ambassador in Paris has a Marine detachment guarding him. Shouldn't we have a Marine detachment guarding our ambassador in Benghazi, a place where we knew there was an al-Qaida cell with arms?," Ryan said.
Biden and Ryan also battled over President Obama's response to the Syrian crisis, Iran's nuclear program, and the time line for ending the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan.
Ryan renewed the assertion that the withdrawal of U.S. surge forces from Afghanistan was a politically-timed move by President Obama, placing security gains in jeopardy. Biden responded forcefully.
"What we do not want to do is give our allies reasons to trust us less, we don't want to embolden our enemies to hold and wait out for us and then take over the country," Ryan said.
"That is a bizarre statement. Forty-nine of our allies, hear me, 49 of our allies signed on to this position, 49 of our allies said out in 2014, it's the responsibility of the Afghans," replied Biden
Biden defended President Obama's strategy on Syria, calling the situation fundamentally different than in Libya where U.S. and allied military action hastened the fall of Moammar Gadhafi. Biden said Romney has avoided specifics on how he would handle Syria.
"Every time the governor is asked about this he [responds with] a whole lot of verbiage, but when he gets pressed he says no, he would not do anything different than we are doing now. Are they proposing putting American troops on the ground, putting American aircraft in [Syrian] airspace, is that what they're proposing, if it is they should speak up and say so," Biden said.
Ryan denied Romney is proposing putting troops on the ground, but challenged President Obama's handling of the crisis.
"The longer this has gone on the more groups like al-Qaida are going in. We could have more easily identified the Free Syrian Army, the freedom fighters, working with our allies, the Turks, the Qataris, the Saudis, had we had a better plan in place to begin with, working with our allies," Ryan said.
Biden said President Obama "doesn't bluff" about preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, saying there are no differences between the U.S. and Israel on Iranian nuclear progress. Ryan said President Obama's Iran policy lacks credibility.
Biden and Ryan also clashed on domestic issues, including unemployment, Romney tax proposals that Biden said favor the wealthy, and Romney plans to transform the government Medicare program.
Ryan said President Obama has failed to produce jobs. Biden challenged Ryan's role in Congress saying his votes contributed to the current economic situation.
"Job growth in September was slower than it was in August and August was slower than it was in July. We're heading in the wrong direction. Twenty three million Americans are struggling for work today. Fifteen percent of Americans are living in poverty today. This is not what a real recovery looks like," said Ryan.
"They talk about this great recession as if it fell out of the sky, like oh my goodness where did it come from. It came from this man voting to put two wars on a credit card, at the same time put a prescription drug benefit on a credit card, a trillion dollar tax cut for the very wealthy," Biden said.
The vice president seized one opportunity that President Obama failed to in his first debate with Mitt Romney. Biden derided remarks Romney made that 47 percent of Americans are satisfied with dependence on government and see themselves as victims.
"It shouldn't be surprising for a guy who says 47 percent of the American people are unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives. My friend [Ryan] recently in a speech in Washington said 30 percent of the American people are "takers." These people are my mom and dad, the people I grew up with, my neighbors, they pay more effective tax than Governor Romney pays in his federal income tax," Biden said.
Both campaigns claimed victory after Thursday's debate. Romney campaign spokesmen said Ryan succeeded in painting a picture of a better economic future for Americans. The Obama campaign said Ryan was unable to defend "indefensible plans."
President Obama watched the debate aboard Air Force One as he returned to Washington following a day of campaign appearances in the state of Florida.
After what he acknowledged was his poor performance in the first presidential debate, campaign officials are leaving nothing to chance before next Tuesday's second debate at Hofstra University in New York.
Obama leaves Saturday for Williamsburg, Virginia where he will spend three days with advisers preparing for the next debate.
The presidential race has tightened considerably with Mr. Romney making gains in some key battleground states, and some polls showing him leading the president nationally.
But Obama campaign officials say they always expected the race to be very close by this point, less than four weeks before election day.