Danville - Joe Biden rained rhetorical punches on Republican Paul Ryan on Thursday in a fiery vice presidential debate, desperate to stem Democratic Party panic after Barack Obama's lifeless display last week.
Vice President Biden and Ryan, nearly 30 years his junior, clashed sharply on Iran, Libya, Afghanistan and top domestic issues including healthcare, abortion and tax on a combustive evening in Kentucky.
Biden also savaged surging Republican nominee Mitt Romney over his remark to rich donors that 47% of Americans were "victims" reliant on government, an attack Obama avoided in his debate loss to Romney, to the fury of Democrats.
In a crackling showdown, Biden, 69, came under intense pressure from Ryan on the Obama administration's handling of the crisis sparked by the killing of the US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, in Benghazi on 11 September.
"We will find and bring to justice the men who did this. Whatever mistakes were made, will not be made again," a steely Biden vowed, and then swiftly went on offense, touting Obama's record on national security.
War in Iraq
Passionate and adamant, Biden was on a mission to reverse Romney's polling surge and steady worried Democrats, and drew on his years as a foreign policy expert to repel his well-briefed opponent's attacks.
But his constant quirky smirking and guffaws on a split screen when the earnest Ryan, 42, gave his answers risked distracting millions of television viewers watching at home, and could dominate the post-debate fallout.
Biden highlighted Obama's honoured promise to end the war in Iraq, his effort to bring troops home from Afghanistan by 2014 and his decision to make the operation to hunt and kill Osama bin Laden a top priority.
"The president of the United States has led with a steady hand and clear vision. Governor Romney, the opposite," he charged.
Ryan, a Wisconsin congressman, replied with a fierce assault on Obama's foreign policy and complained that the US ambassador to Paris had a Marines detachment while Stevens, in restive Libya, did not.
"Look, if we're hit by terrorists, we're going to call it for what it is, a terrorist attack," Ryan said, hitting a Republican theme that Obama did not want to admit the truth for political reasons.
Ryan also charged there was a deeper problem for Obama.
"What we're watching is the unravelling of the Obama foreign policy, which is making things more chaotic and us less safe," Ryan said.
Biden, with typical Irish-American blarney, replied: "With all due respect, that's a bunch of malarkey."
Immediate analysis by pundits scored the clash a draw, with Biden apparently doing enough to cheer gloomy Democrats and Ryan avoiding serious errors that could haunt the Republican ticket.
Obama, who watched the debate aboard Air Force One, told reporters he "could not be prouder" of Biden and his strong advocacy of the middle class.
Romney called Ryan to congratulate him on his performance, aides said.
With Iran's nuclear drive casting a shadow over America's immediate foreign policy, Biden said that the Islamic Republic was still a "good way away" from getting an atomic bomb, and vowed it would never get there.
He accused Romney and Ryan of recklessly talking tough on Iran.
"Facts matter. All this loose talk about all they have to do is get to enrich uranium and they have a weapon. Not true. Not true," he said.
Ryan however claimed Obama had been asleep at the switch.
"Let's just look at this from the view of the Ayatollahs," he said.
"What do they see? They see this administration trying to water down sanctions in Congress for over two years. They're moving faster toward a nuclear weapon. They're spinning the centrifuges faster."
Biden also took on Romney over his remark in a secretly filmed fundraiser with rich donors that 47% of Americans are "victims" who dodge taxes, rely on the government and will not take responsibility for themselves.
"These people are my mom and dad, the people I grew up with, my neighbours. They pay more effective tax than Governor Romney pays in his federal income tax," Biden said, making an attack Obama eschewed last week.
The rivals, both Roman Catholics, also engaged over abortion, a hot button issue as both sides chase the crucial women's vote.
Biden warned that if Romney and Ryan were elected, they would choose a Supreme Court justice that would be sure to oppose the right to terminate a pregnancy.
New polling on Thursday bolstered the impression that Romney's surge had lifted the Republican ticket into at least a tie less than a month before election day.
Rasmussen Reports had Obama up a single point in its national poll of those likely to vote on 6 November, while Gallup had a similar margin but with Romney on top.
A flurry of state polls revealed the race was essentially a toss-up.
An NBC/Wall Street Journal survey had Obama up six points in what may be the kingmaker state, Ohio, but two other surveys in the state said the race was within a single point.
Romney had narrow leads in other battlegrounds Colorado and Virginia, while Obama was up in another Virginia poll and led by 1% in Florida. There were signs of a narrowing race in other key states.
Thursday's clash served as a warm-up act for the final two bouts between Obama and Romney, in New York state on 16 October and in Florida on 22 October.