Vice President Joe Biden and Republican Paul Ryan each pledged that their parties’ proposals would bring U.S. unemployment below 6 percent as they clashed on foreign affairs and domestic policy during their only debate.
“We can and we will get it under 6 percent,” Biden said, without giving a timeframe for the figure to recede from the 7.8% for last month.
Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate, said such a goal is the “entire premise” of their ticket’s economic plans.
While unemployment in September unexpectedly fell to 7.8%, the lowest level since President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, only one president – Ronald Reagan – has been re-elected since World War II with unemployment above 6%.
The shared goal was one of the few items of agreement during last night’s 90-minute debate at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, as they confronted each other on a range of issues and spoke in measured tones of their differences on abortion rights even as both are practicing Catholics.
Ryan said his religion and seeing an ultrasound of his daughter had convinced him that life begins at conception, leading to his opposition to abortion rights.
“I don’t see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith,” he said.
Biden said he agreed with the church’s rejection of abortion in his personal life, yet “I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here.”
Biden also said the next president would likely be able to pick one or two new U.S. Supreme Court justices, and that Romney selections would endanger the legality of abortion.
Instant polling in the debate’s aftermath gave a mixed verdict on its outcome.
A CNN poll of registered voters gave an edge to Ryan, with 48% declaring him the winner and 44% siding with Biden. The survey of 381 respondents has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
A CBS poll of 431 undecided voters showed Biden the winner over Ryan, 50% to 31%. This survey’s margin of error also was 5 percentage points.
The 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.
Ryan alluded to the presidential debate when he said to Biden, “I know you’re under a lot of duress to make up for lost ground,” while chiding him for interrupting.
Romney and Obama will meet in two more debates this month.
Moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News kicked off the contest by asking about the attack last month on the consulate in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya.
Ryan criticized the Obama administration for a lack of security in Libya and for its original statement that the incident was part of a protest rather than a terrorist attack.
“What we are watching on our TV screens is the unraveling of the Obama foreign policy,” Ryan said.
Biden, 69, said whatever mistakes had been made in the original assessment of the attack “will not be made again,” and went after Romney and Ryan, 42, for not having a clear vision on foreign policy.
Biden, in rebutting Ryan’s criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of the Benghazi attack and his charge that the president is advocating “devastating” defense cuts, said to Ryan: “With all due respect, that’s a bunch of malarkey.”
Ryan said the Obama administration hadn’t done enough to prevent the violence in Syria or to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
“It’s because this administration has no credibility on this issue, it’s because this administration watered down sanctions,” Ryan said on Iran. “They say the military option is on the table, but it’s not being viewed as credible.”
Biden shot back, saying, “Incredible,” with a laugh.
“This is a bunch of stuff,” he said of Ryan’s criticism. He also said the sanctions on Iran are “crippling” and said war should always be “the last resort.”
“What, are you – you’re going to go to war? Is that what you want to do?” Biden said to Ryan.
“We want to prevent war,” Ryan responded.
He said he and Romney also weren’t talking about sending troops to Syria, even as they have criticized the administration’s response to the civil war there.
Biden accused Romney and Ryan of failing to protect the U.S. middle class, saying the Republicans were focused on lowering tax rates for the highest earners and were out to weaken Medicare.
“They’re holding hostage the middle class tax cut to the super wealthy,” Biden said. “This is unconscionable.”
Ryan countered that there aren’t enough high earners to cover all the spending planned by the administration. “Watch out middle class: The tax bill is coming to you,” Ryan said.
He said talk by Democrats about how Ryan and Romney would move the country to a voucher system for Medicare is designed to “scare people,” and that Obama and his allies “haven’t put a credible solution on the table.”
Later, he said that Obama specializes in talking, rather than taking action. “That’s what we get in this administration – speeches – but we’re not getting leadership.”
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.
Biden used the debate to bring up Romney’s remark at a private fundraiser that 47% of the country is dependent on government benefits. Ryan said Romney hadn’t intended to make the statement, alluding to Biden’s own penchant for verbal gaffes.
“I think the vice president very well knows that sometimes the words don’t come out of your mouth the right way,” Ryan said to laughter from the audience.
Interrupting, Biden replied: “But I always say what I mean – and so does Romney.”
Biden returned to the 47% in his closing statement, saying Romney is “talking about the people that have built this country,” he said. “All they’re looking for is an even shot.”
“The president and I are not going to rest until that playing field is leveled,” Biden said.
Ryan used his closing statement to paint Romney, a former private equity executive, as a job creator.
“The choice is clear: a stagnant economy that promotes more government dependency or a dynamic, growing economy that promotes opportunity and jobs,” Ryan said. “Mitt Romney and I will not duck the tough issues, and we will not blame others for the next four years.”