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Biden and Ryan clash in VP debate

US vice president Joe Biden and the man who wants to succeed him, Republican Paul Ryan, clashed in a feisty debate over foreign and economic policy as Mr Biden sought to make up for President Barack Obama's lacklustre performance last week against his opponent, Mitt Romney.

The two went head-to-head over the Obama administration's policy in Libya and Iran in the opening minutes of a contentious vice presidential debate, with Mr Ryan citing it as evidence that it is weakening America's standing in the world.

It only grew more heated as the candidates sniped at each other over Afghanistan and Syria, as well as the slow economy, taxes and the government healthcare programme for the elderly. It was a combative performance on both sides, with both men repeatedly interrupting each other - and the moderator too. "That's a bunch of malarkey," Mr Biden retorted - twice. The vice president also referred to Mr Ryan's statements as "a bunch of stuff".

The stakes are not generally this high in vice presidential debates, but Mr Biden was under pressure to restore energy to the Democratic campaign less than a month before the November 6 election. Mr Ryan, a congressman from Wisconsin who at 42 is a generation younger than his opponent, fought to hold on to the Republicans' sudden rise in the polls that followed the Obama-Romney debate.

Thursday night's debate at a small college in Kentucky was everything that the presidential one was not: substantive and contentious. Mr Biden, seeking to be aggressive but running the risk of appearing childish, rolled his eyes and laughed in disbelief at some of Mr Ryan's statements. "I know you're under a lot of duress to make up for lost ground," Mr Ryan said at one point, "but I think people would be better served if we don't keep interrupting each other."

The two went at each other seconds into the debate, with Mr Ryan saying the September 11 death of the US ambassador in an attack at the US consulate in Benghazi was evidence that the administration's foreign policy was unravelling. Mr Biden reminded viewers that Mr Obama was willing to chase the September 11 terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden to the end of the earth, and he quoted Mr Romney as essentially saying he would not have done the same.

On Iran, Mr Biden defended current sanctions as the toughest ones in history, while Mr Ryan said Mr Obama has allowed Iran to get four years closer to building a nuclear weapon, and accused the White House of ignoring the warnings of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and not standing up for its chief ally. The candidates disagreed on Syria, with Mr Ryan accusing the administration of inaction and saying it was outsourcing foreign policy to the United Nations. Mr Biden said the last thing the US needs is another ground war in the Middle East, and that if Mr Ryan and Mr Romney want to send troops to Syria they should just say so. Mr Ryan agreed with Mr Obama's plan to transition out of Afghanistan by 2014, but said that publicising the date for withdrawal amounted to exposing weakness.

The slow economy has been the dominant issue of the US election, and Mr Ryan cited high unemployment numbers as evidence that there is no recovery under way. Twenty-three million are struggling to work, he said, and 15% of the country is living in poverty. "This is not what a real recovery looks like," the congressman said.

In turn, the pressure was on for Mr Biden to go where Mr Obama did not in his own debate. He quickly did so, citing Mr Romney's opposition to the administration's successful auto industry bailout, and noting that it was not surprising given the Republican's recent videotaped comment in which he was heard saying that 47% of Americans view themselves as victims who depend on the government and refuse to take responsibility for their lives. "These people are my mom and dad," Mr Biden said.

Last week's presidential debate erased Mr Obama's advantage and boosted Mr Romney nationally and - more importantly - in such battleground states as Ohio.About 41 states are seen as essentially already decided for Mr Romney or Mr Obama, leaving nine up for grabs, including Ohio. No Republican has ever won the White House without carrying that state. Mr Romney and Mr Obama meet again on Tuesday for a town hall-style debate in Hempstead, New York. Their third and last debate is scheduled on October 22 in Boca Raton, Florida.

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