ANALYSIS: Moderator has strongest showing at VP debate

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A man debated a boy Thursday night on national television, and both were ultimately schooled by a woman.

Both males are auditioning for the vice presidency. Based on their performances -- not their policies -- only Vice President Joe Biden acted as though he could sit at the desk in the Oval Office and have his feet touch the ground. Moderator Martha Raddatz, a journalist who's more accustomed to flying in a Black Hawk than sitting at an anchor's desk, pursued each man with the vigor of a woman more accustomed to need-ling foreign leaders than reciting prompter text.

Caricature is the currency of media and politics, and this election year, both the sitting vice president and the aspiring vice president have inflated their cartoonishness by Greece-like percentages. Consider Time magazine's newly released photos of Rep. Paul Ryan in gym clothes and backward baseball cap, curling dumbbells. Consider the photo of Biden nuzzling a doo-ragged biker chick last month in Ohio. Ryan portrays himself as a wonk who exercises his mind by crunching numbers and his body by numbering crunches. Biden, pairing foreign-policy credentials with rambling folksiness, has fashioned himself into a blue-collar elder statesman who sometimes acts like your uncle after three glasses of Scotch.

Biden, perhaps the last pre-Boomer on a major-party ticket, turns 70 next month. Ryan, the first bona-fide Gen-Xer on a major-party ticket, exited his terrible twos about three weeks after Biden became a senator.

And yet Biden, even when playing up his long political tenure, radiated much more vigor than his opponent, whom he kept calling "my friend," although he seemed to mean "my silly, inexperienced friend." To his credit, Ryan kept his poker face.

Raddatz held firm control of the debate without squelching dialogue or spontaneity. She pushed the candidates for "specific plans"; she declared, "We're gonna move on" when answers meandered; and she silenced both debaters with the teacherly interjection of "Gentlemen." Fairly or not, she reserved most of her skepticism for Ryan.

The night's most ready-for-prime-time move came not from either candidate, but from Raddatz, who in the closing minutes of the debate asked them: "Are you ever embarrassed by the tone" of this campaign? Both candidates avoided apologizing for their campaign's behavior and pivoted back to talking points, but the message from the moderator was clear: You boys might be running for the second-highest office, but the American people don't like the way you're doing it.