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Biden's interruptive merriment the take away talking point of veep debate

Joe Biden offered many, many, many, many laughs at Paul Ryan's expense during Thursday night's veep candidate debate in Kentucky. Photo: Ed Bark

Oftentimes over-compensating for the boss man's self-acknowledged "bad night" last week, Vice President Joe Biden made his mere omni-presence the singular issue of Thursday night's veep candidate debate with comparative kiddo Paul Ryan.

Smokin' Joe grinned, chortled, interrupted at will and generally came off as one of those loud, know-it-all uncles with a few belts under his belt. Ryan was a gamely smiling in-law enduring the annual Christmas get-together.

Viewers watching via split-screen --- with CNN again presenting the entire debate this way -- got the full force of Biden's mega-Red Bull approach. Stylistically it soon wore thin. But the vice president's passion at least was in play. As live wires go, this guy was 5,000 volts worth. President Obama, in contrast, had a power failure.

Democrats loved the the No. 2 man's take-no-prisoners approach while Republicans branded him an ill-mannered boor. No surprise there. But what of the ever-worshipped "undecided" voters? Will Biden's lack of standard issue debate decorum matter to them? For someone who still champions "working across the aisle," he perhaps came off as the kind of guy who'd even pick a fight about walking his daughter down the aisle.

Ryan wasn't always a punching bag. And in fact he may have scored his biggest points by interrupting one of Biden's multi-interruptions to tell the veep that viewers would be better served if they'd stop interrupting each other. Biden clearly was the Interrupter-in-Chief. But it sure was good political "theater" -- until it deteriorated into Crossfire for a while.

Both Biden and Ryan may have partially cleansed the palate in the closing 15 minutes with their serious, interrupted discourses on how their positions on abortion squared with their Catholicism. They have distinctly different viewers, of course -- and this time they actually aired them out. Even Biden knew it would be unseemly to chortle through his opponent's answer. Abortion is no laughing matter, although just about everything else was.

Maybe it's just the arrogance of power. People who have it quickly grow contemptuous of upstarts who would dare to take it away from them. President George H.W. Bush disdainfully looked at his watch during a 1992 "town hall meeting" encounter with challengers Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. Al Gore, the sitting vice president at the time, sighed his way through the first 2000 debate with George W. And now the Biden laugh, which repeatedly signaled his basic contempt for a punk like Ryan. "Hey, kid, go wash my vice presidential limousine for me and put a coat of wax on it while you're at it."

Moderator Martha Raddatz, a whiz on foreign affairs, had sharper follow-ups than her predecessor, Jim Lehrer. But she also found it difficult to control the combatants, even though she sat within almost arm's length of them at a table rather then presiding from afar while President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney stood at podiums.

Then again, a moderator shouldn't overly separate the combatants. Biden could hardly be told to stop laughing or he'd be put in "Time out." The candidates' respective behaviors and appearances also are key to these things. Often more so than what they actually say. It goes all the way back to a pale-faced Richard Nixon sweating his way through a perceived loss to tanned, rested and ready John F. Kennedy in their landmark first 1960 debate. Kennedy looked notably toned even in black-and-white.

Ryan hardly had the presence or charisma of JFK, whose name once again came up courtesy of a Biden jab. But the challenger might have come off as more "vice presidential" than the vice president himself. Laughter may be the best medicine, but it's still possible to over-dose.

In the end, CNN's on-screen time clocks said that Biden spoke for a total of 41 minutes, 32 seconds while Ryan wasn't far behind at 40:12. But their respective reactions to one another are turning into the debate's biggest story. And Saturday Night Live almost certainly will build this weekend's debate sendup around Biden's constant merriment. I can see the script now:

Ryan: "And after my bout with colon cancer, I learned that my sister had leukemia . . . "

Biden: (Uproarious laughter).

Ryan: "But we're both fighters. We get that from our dad, who lost a leg to mortar fire during the Vietnam War, but . . ."

Biden: (Uproarious laughter) Followed by, "You guys would all be without medical care under the Republican plan to . . ."

And so on.