Joe Biden attacked Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan as enemies of the middle class in Thursday night's vice-presidential debate, moving aggressively to stem the bleeding from Barack Obama's campaign for re-election.
Claiming to have “never met two guys who were so down on America”, the Vice-President warned tens of millions of voters watching on television that the Republican candidates would raise taxes on ordinary families, gut benefit schemes for the vulnerable and plunge the US into new wars.
In an effort to make amends for Mr Obama's lacklustre defeat in last week's first presidential debate, Mr Biden repeatedly condemned Mr Romney's secretly-recorded remarks that 47 per cent of Americans were government-dependent “victims” refusing to take responsibility for their own lives.
“These people are my mom and dad, the people I grew up with, my neighbours,” he said. “They pay more effective tax than Governor Romney pays in his federal income tax. They are elderly people who in fact are living off of Social Security. They are veterans and people fighting in Afghanistan”.
Mr Biden's onslaught – comprising 82 interruptions, exuberant hand gestures and an audible complaint of “Oh God” – divided opinion. A CBS snap poll of 500 uncommitted voters found 50 per cent thought he had won, while 31 per cent voted for Mr Ryan. Mr Ryan, meanwhile, won a CNN survey 48-44.
However, his unrelenting approach boosted morale among Democrats shell-shocked by national polls showing Mr Romney surging into the lead thanks to his victory in Colorado last week. “It was like watching the principal debate the class president,” claimed David Axelrod, Mr Obama's top strategist.
Mr Ryan, a 42-year-old Wisconsin congressman, fought valiantly to make the case for Mr Romney against a bombardment from the 69-year-old former senator. “Mitt Romney and I want to earn your support,” he told voters in his closing statement. “We're offering real reforms for a real recovery for every American.”
The Republican sharply criticised Mr Biden for the administration's handling of the September 11 assault on the US consulate in Benghazi, which killed the US ambassador to Libya. “It took the President two weeks to acknowledge that this was a terrorist attack,” he said.
He dismissed complaints from the Obama campaign that he and Mr Romney had politicised the incident distastefully. “If we're hit by terrorists, we're going to call it for what it is – a terrorist attack,” he said, adding that the saga showed Mr Obama's foreign policy was “unravelling”.
However he was painted as a trigger-happy young radical by Mr Biden, a former chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, who repeatedly accused the Republicans of “loose talk” in promising military action to block Iran's nuclear programme and oust the Syrian government.
Accusing them of offering a “bunch of malarkey”, Mr Biden said “crippling sanctions” against Iran were working. “The President of the United States has led with a steady hand and clear vision. Governor Romney the opposite,” he said. “The last thing we need now is another war”.
He also accused Mr Romney of going against the wishes of voters by considering leaving US forces in Afghanistan beyond Mr Obama's scheduled withdrawal by the end of 2014.
Mr Ryan condemned Mr Obama for the cooling in America's relations with Israel, claiming that by “putting daylight between ourselves and our allies”, the President was giving Iran “encouragement” to pursue a nuclear weapon.
Mr Biden risked a row with the US intelligence establishment by blaming them squarely for inaccurate early assessments of the Benghazi attack, despite firm claims that the White House was told within days that it had in fact been a premeditated terrorist strike.
And despite testimony this week from US officials that they desired greater protection of the diplomatic mission in Libya, Mr Biden insisted: “We weren't told they wanted more security. We did not know they wanted more security”.
Mr Biden sharply challenged the Republican economic plan where Mr Obama had pulled his punches, claiming that their reform of Medicare, the health scheme for the elderly, would cost each pensioner an extra $6,400 a year and that middle-class voters would fund a tax cut for top-earners.
He generally overpowered Mr Ryan's attempts to plea that ordinary families would not suffer under their tax reforms and that no such Medicare cost hike would take place. “This is what politicians do when they don't have a record to run on,” said Mr Ryan. “Try to scare people into voting for them”.
Asked how their characters meant they offered something unique to American voters, Mr Ryan unsteadily suggested that “there are plenty of fine people who could lead this country”. Summing up his evening's message more decisively, Mr Biden said: “Look at my record - it's been all about the middle class”.
As the first pair of Roman Catholics to appear in a single US presidential election, the candidates were challenged to say how their faith had informed their views on the divisive issue of abortion rights. Mr Ryan offered an impassioned case against abortion.
“I believe that life begins at conception,” he said. “That's why I'm pro-life”. In one of several attempts to soften his image of a harsh fiscal hawk by using personal anecdotes, he recalled being shown the ultrasound scan of his first child, Liza as a seven-week-old “bean”, which remained her nickname.
However, after being painted by Mr Biden as an extremist who would ban abortion even in cases of rape and incest, Mr Ryan faltered when asked if “those who believe that abortion should remain legal” should “be worried” by the prospect of a Romney-Ryan presidency.
“We don’t think that un-elected judges should make this decision,” he said. “People through their elected representatives in reaching a consensus in society through the democratic process should make this determination”. Mr Romney - who has consistently trailed among women voters - this week said that anti-abortion legislation was not part of his agenda.