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Thursday, December 8, 2016

Who woulda thunk that Joe Biden, of all people, would drag a onetime rockstar president over the finish line? Only a few months ago, plenty of Democrats wanted the vice president dumped from the ticket in favor of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Now he is saving Barack Obama’s bacon.

Historically, vice-presidential debates have had little impact on the outcome of presidential elections, but there are exceptions and 2012 may prove to be one of them.

In 2004, the Democratic challenger, John Kerry, was up 8 points in several polls after besting President George W. Bush in their first debate. But then Vice President Dick Cheney drove home Bush’s national-security message in his debate with John Edwards and won on points, not likeability, which was never Cheney’s strong suit. Bush’s polling stabilized and he went on to win a close election.

Unless Obama lays eggs in the two next debates, I suspect the same dynamic will be at work this year. Biden may have irritated some voters — the instant polls were split — and Paul Ryan’s smooth and intelligent performance makes him a likely Republican nominee for president in the future. But the big takeaway from this contest will be that Biden stopped, or at least slowed, Mitt Romney’s momentum, re-energized panicky Democrats and scored heavily with two key constituencies: senior citizens and women.

The contrast between Biden’s performance and that of his boss in Denver a week earlier couldn’t have been starker. Where Obama never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity (as former Israeli Foreign minister Abba Eban liked to say about the Arabs), Biden jumped on every one of Ryan’s arguments.

When Obama’s debate-prep team analyzes which of Biden’s counterpunches landed best with focus groups, the president will cherry-pick the answers and try to deliver a calmer, more presidential and more selective version of his running mate’s performance.

This isn’t to claim that Biden “won”; unlike the presidential forum in Denver, the verdict on the Kentucky contest broke down along party lines, though the conservative pundit Dick Morris wrote in a mid-debate Twitter post: “can’t believe how weak Ryan is.”

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