The first question from moderator Martha Raddatz was about the attack on the consulate in Libya:

“Wasn’t this a massive intelligence failure?” Biden could only say, “What it was, was a tragedy.” Ryan: “It took the president two weeks to say this was a terrorist attack.” Biden said Ryan’s answer was “a bunch of malarkey, his budget cut embassy security.” But he made the damaging admission that “we didn’t know they wanted more security.”

Throughout the debate, Biden wore a huge grin, which essentially said, of Ryan, “This guy doesn’t know what he is talking about.” But Ryan handled himself well. The first major discussion was about Iran and nuclear weapons. Ryan accused the administration of watering down sanctions on Iran. Biden said the sanctions were “the most crippling in history.” Edge to Biden here. Iran’s currency is in free fall.

Raddatz went back to the attack in Libya: The State Department has now made clear, there were no protesters there. It was a pre-planned assault by heavily armed men. (There is no putting lipstick on this pig. It was a massive intelligence failure.)

Biden was generally the aggressor in the debate. His best moment was an attack on Ryan’s fiscal policies:

“The two budgets the congressman introduced have eviscerated all the things that the middle class cares about. He will knock 19 million people off of Medicare. It will kick 200,000 children off of early education. It will eliminate the tax credit people have to be able to send their children to college. It cuts education by $450 billion. It does virtually nothing except continue to increase the tax cuts for the very wealthy. And, you know, we’ve had enough of this. The idea that he’s so concerned about these deficits, I’ve pointed out he voted to put two wars on a credit card.”

Biden administered some more lipstick to the pig when he tried to defend the economy. “Unemployment is under 8%,” he said. “We can and will get it under 6%. When we took office, $1.6 trillion had been lost in home equity. We rescued GM. Romney said he would let Detroit go bankrupt. Instead of signing pledges to Grover, we’re going to level the playing field.” What Biden says about the economy is true, but it’s been four years and the numbers don’t look good. Ryan exploited the opening with a counterattack on Obama’s record toward the end of the debate:

“We face a very big choice. What kind of country are we going to be? What kind of country are we going to give our kids? President Obama, he had his chance. He made his choices. His economic agenda, more spending, more borrowing, higher taxes, a government takeover of health care. It’s not working. It’s failed to create the jobs we need.

“Twenty-three million Americans are struggling for work today. Fifteen percent of Americans are in poverty. This is not what a real recovery looks like. You deserve better. Mitt Romney and I want to earn your support. We’re offering real reforms for a real recovery for every American. . . . Mitt Romney – his experience, his ideas, his solutions – is uniquely qualified to get this job done.”

The biggest surprise was the focus on foreign policy. I expected more discussion about the economy and jobs. Much of the debate was taken up by whether Iran had a nuclear capability, and, if so, to what extent. Libya and Egypt also took center stage, and Syria came in for some scrutiny. Though there was hardly any mention of China, there was a pointed back-and-forth about our troops and the overall strategy in Afghanistan.

Biden learned from Mitt Romney that the aggressor wins debates. So I would have to give the edge to Biden. Ryan made his case for change. After four years, there are enough unsolved problems–in particular, the stagnant economy–that it is hard to say that Biden successfully defended Obama’s stewardship. Ryan acknowledged that the Obama administration inherited a difficult economic climate, but, after four years, they own it. Biden assailed the Republicans for the cuts they were making, but there was less emphasis on the economy than might have been expected.

Now the preliminaries are over. The third debate will tell the tale.