DANVILLE, Kentucky -- There are two ways to judge Thursday's vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, and no one yet knows which one voters will choose.
The first is on the substance of what was discussed. That debate was about a tie, with Biden winning on issues like Medicare and Afghanistan, and Ryan winning on taxes and Libya. Judged on the substance, it seems unlikely that debate will change much of anything in the broader presidential race.
The second way to judge the debate is on style, but that really means just one thing: Joe Biden's demeanor. If voters believe the vice president was smirking, rude, and condescending, then the night was Ryan's. If they believe Biden simply spoke forcefully about things he believes deeply, it was Biden's. But the bottom line is that the style debate is all about Joe.
Even though the 90-minute session covered Libya, Iran, Afghanistan, jobs, taxes, Social Security, Medicare, abortion and several other issues, it was Biden's behavior that dominated the post-debate spin room. Top Obama campaign officials argued aggressively that Biden, who smiled, laughed, and often interrupted Ryan during the discussion of a number of serious topics, had struck the perfect tone.
"Biden was a happy warrior tonight," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said. "Joe Biden was a happy warrior for the middle class."
Still, was it appropriate for Biden to actually laugh while Ryan was speaking? "I think it was appropriate for him to show passion and have him be a happy warrior," Messina said. "When the other side is spending their time talking about facial gestures and laughing, you know they had a bad night."
Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who played Ryan in Biden's debate preparation sessions, said that the more the vice president focused on Republican positions during those sessions, the more determined he became to be aggressive on debate night. "Joe Biden is passionate about the middle class," Van Hollen said. "These issues are serious, and the vice president takes them very seriously."
"I think what you saw tonight was a true passion," said Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, "a lifetime of passion for an America where the middle class is growing." O'Malley, who was invited by the Obama campaign to speak on the vice president's behalf, called Ryan "a very immature young man who's not ready for this job" and added, "I thought, frankly, that Paul Ryan came across as a bit of a cold fish when he wasn't coming off as shallow and totally unprepared for the high office for which he's running."
"And some of their stuff was laughable," O'Malley continued. Reciting Republican positions on tax cuts, O'Malley concluded, "I think that is laughable, and frankly I'm glad that the vice president laughed at them for that. They deserve to be laughed at -- and scorned."
For their part, Republicans could barely believe that a debate they thought would be about big issues ended with everyone discussing Biden's facial expressions. "I thought it was rude, condescending, and less than professional," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz.
"Shocking," said Kerry Healey, who served as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts when Mitt Romney was governor. "I thought he was blustery, non-substantive, and very hostile."
"He reminded me of Al Gore in 2000, with the smirking and the facial gestures and the sighing and the smiling," said Russ Schriefer, a top Romney aide. "It just seemed odd."
If Democrats are to be believed, they really don't mind Biden's style because he consistently drew a sharp contrast between himself and Ryan on key issues. Just as Messina stressed reaction in a few top swing states after last week's first presidential debate in Denver, so he did in Danville, insisting that Biden had gotten the job done.
"What I wanted tonight was a clear difference between us and them on taxes, on Medicare, on Social Security, and that's exactly what we got," Messina said. "And so from the campaign manager tonight, that's a victory for me." Pointing to target audiences in Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, and a few other states, Messina asked, "What did voters in Colorado, swing voters in JeffCo and Arapahoe, see? What they saw was a clear difference on choice, a clear difference on contraception, a clear difference on Medicare and Social Security, and a clear difference on the economy."
There's no doubt Messina got the contrast he wanted. And there's no doubt the Democratic base -- frustrated by President Obama's timid and uninspiring performance in Denver -- finally got some red meat. But what did voters think of Biden himself? The answer to that question will decide who won the debate.
But some Democrats believed they already knew the answer. Maybe Biden was super-aggressive. But after the debate one side was defending its guy and the other was whining about its opponent. Doesn't that tell you something? "If you're complaining," said Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra, "you're losing."