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Analysis: In vice presidential debate, "tie goes to the incumbent"

By Andy Sullivan

DANVILLE, Kentucky (Reuters) - The debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Republican challenger Paul Ryan might not change the minds of many voters. In fact, it could make them less likely to change.

But Democrats and Republicans found plenty to cheer about on Thursday, and plenty of reasons to believe that the other side is more misguided than ever.

If the two men fought to a draw - as conflicting post-debate polls seem to suggest - that counts as a win for Biden and his boss, Democratic President Barack Obama, who needed to stop the bleeding after his lackluster debate performance last week against Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Biden's aggressive performance is sure to cheer Democratic partisans who worried that their side wasn't fighting with enough passion. It also could have been a preview of Obama's approach on Tuesday in his second debate against Romney.

"If you had to call winner right now, I'd say it's a draw," said David Steinberg, a debate coach and communications professor at the University of Miami. "But a tie goes to the incumbent."

Ryan, new to the national stage, turned in a solid performance that probably won't lead many voters to question the judgment of Romney, who put the Wisconsin congressman on the Republican ticket.

Ryan faced the challenge of showing that he had a command of foreign policy issues against Biden, a veteran of international affairs - a test Ryan largely passed, analysts said. His attacks on the Obama administration's Libya policy created openings that Romney is likely to exploit in the two debates to come.

"He left this debate with little doubt that he'll have some bigger political career going forward if Romney doesn't win the election," said Jamie Chandler, a political science professor at Hunter College in New York.

But on Thursday, Biden was the story.

Mustering a passion that was missing from Obama's performance last week, Biden - a U.S. senator for 36 years before he was elected vice president in 2009 - argued that the administration's efforts to dig out of the recession were improving Americans' lives, and that its decision to wind down the war in Afghanistan would prevent further deaths.

His attacks on Romney's economic policies hit all of the buttons Obama had neglected the week before.

At one point, Biden made a comment that touched on Romney's Byzantine tax returns, the Republican's suggestion to let U.S. automakers go bankrupt, his proposal to let struggling homeowners lose their houses, and his dismissal of 47 percent of the public as unproductive parasites.

PALIN AND KENNEDY

During the debate Biden compared Ryan with Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate who was widely seen as unprepared for national office.

And when Ryan compared his tax plan to that of Democratic icon John Kennedy, Biden was ready with a quip: "Oh, now you're Jack Kennedy?"

When it was Ryan's turn to speak, Biden laughed, scoffed and interrupted. The antics were sure to bolster Biden's reputation as a slightly unhinged gaffe machine and provide fodder for late-night television satirists.

"The happiest people in the country after this debate are going to be the writers at 'Saturday Night Live,'" Steinberg said.

Sure enough, the Republican National Committee quickly released an online compilation of Biden's smirks called "Laughing at the Issues."

But Ryan let such interruptions largely go unchallenged - a decision that let Biden take command the debate, said Kathryn Olson, a communications professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.

"I think it was a dominance move, and he got away with it," Olson said.

Republican enthusiasm for Romney has skyrocketed since last week's debate, which was widely seen as a clear victory for the former Massachusetts governor. Some 51 percent of Republicans said they held a "very favorable" opinion of Romney this week, up from 37 percent in the week before the debate, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling data.

Democratic enthusiasm for Obama has fallen over the same time period from 63 percent to 51 percent, according to the data.

Biden's performance may help turn around those numbers for Democrats at a time when Obama's campaign is mobilizing its get-out-the vote effort before the November 6 election. But it will be up to Obama to close the deal in the two debates to come, on Tuesday and on October 22.

"We can look at what Biden employed tonight as a preview of what Obama's going to do," Chandler said.

(Editing by David Lindsey and Christopher Wilson)

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