It was early on in last night's vice presidential debate -- indeed, it was after Paul Ryan's very first answer -- that Joe Biden went on the offensive.
BIDEN: With all due respect, that's a bunch of malarkey.
RADDATZ: And why is that so?
BIDEN: Because not a single thing he said is accurate.
And it was at that moment when it became clear that this week's debate would not be anything like last week's debate.
Perhaps the clearest indication of who won and lost came quickly on the heels of the event itself: the Democratic post-debate message was that Joe Biden scored a clear win; the Republican message was that Joe Biden was too mean to Paul Ryan. The former is a boast of success; the latter is an excuse for failure.
In the larger context, it's hard to overstate how much Democrats needed a shot in the arm like this. The surface-level goals of any vice presidential debate is for the candidates to demonstrate a capacity to step up in the event of a crisis, while defending their ticket's agenda and knocking their rivals' agenda. But for Biden, the overarching benefit was about the basic morale of his party with less than four weeks to go until Election Day: he wanted to give Democratic voters something to feel good about, and he did.
Note, for example, that the vice president referenced Mitt Romney's infamous "47 percent" video five times last night -- which is five more references than we heard in Denver last week.
The point is not that Ryan's performance was awful; it wasn't. Rather, Ryan was simply overpowered -- where Biden was on the offensive; Ryan was on the defensive. Where Biden was direct; Ryan was evasive. Where Biden was confident; Ryan was in over his head. This line from John Dickerson rings true: "There’s an old line attributed to Bill Clinton: It’s hard for the other guy to talk when your fist is in his mouth. Biden was up to his elbow."
CBS News did a poll of undecided voters who thought Biden won by a fairly large margin, but they also reached an even more interesting conclusion: whereas before the debate, these voters thought Ryan was better prepared to serve as an effective president, after the debate, the results flipped in Biden's favor.
Some of this, I suspect, is the result of lowered expectations -- for much of the country, the only time they see the vice president is when he's caught making some kind of goofy "gaffe." With that in mind, many Americans probably tuned in last night assuming they'd see a caricature. Instead, they saw an accomplished, extremely well prepared vice president and former senator take his young "friend" to school.
Ryan's biggest trouble came on issues, details, and substance, and I'll be fleshing many of those areas out as the morning progresses, but when it comes to an overall take on the event, I saw Joe Biden overwhelm the right-wing congressman, and it didn't appear close.