By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Joe Biden's spirited performance in the vice presidential debate has some critics panning him for over-the-top chuckles and snide grins, but it set the stage for President Barack Obama to regain his footing during a rematch with Republican challenger Mitt Romney next week.
After Obama was seen as largely passive against a resurgent Romney last week in the first primetime debate before the November 6 election, Biden fired up the Democratic base by aggressively challenging his opponent Paul Ryan on taxes, healthcare and foreign policy.
Post-debate polls put Thursday night's matchup largely at a draw.
Obama now has a chance to dial back from Biden's sarcastic smiles and mocking quips, and deliver his own vigorous argument for why he should get a second term in the White House.
Democratic U.S. Representative Chris Van Hollen, who helped Biden prepare, said he expected Obama to come out swinging during the town-hall style debate on Tuesday.
"I think the president will be more aggressive in terms of the facts. After all, in the last debate the president essentially listened as Mitt Romney reinvented himself and Mitt Romney reinvented all their proposals," Van Hollen said on MSNBC on Friday.
The Democrats had looked to Biden to stop the bleeding after Romney's forceful performance gave him a surge in the polls less than a month before Election Day.
The veteran vice president, 69, scored points on the youthful Wisconsin congressman with a fiery delivery that highlighted his experience in foreign policy and hit hard on domestic issues.
Ryan largely met his challenge of trying to show he was knowledgeable, presidential, and that Romney had not made a mistake in making the 42-year-old his running mate.
The two campaigns both claimed victory.
"Most people who saw last night saw Paul Ryan as someone who had a command of the facts, had a clear, positive agenda for the future, and someone who's very serious about the serious issues that we face as country," Republican advisor Ed Gillespie said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."
Gillespie did seize on Biden's comments about the security at the consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed on September 11.
When asked about whether the mission had asked for more security during the months leading up to the attack, Biden said, "Well, we weren't told they wanted more security again. We did not know they wanted more security again."
The comments appeared to conflict with statements from a U.S. security officer who said he twice asked his State Department superiors for more security agents.
"There's a clear contradiction," Gillespie said.
ROMNEY GRABS THE LEAD
Romney advanced to take a small lead in many national opinion polls after the first debate on October 3, reversing what had been a small but growing advantage for Obama since the Democratic convention in early September.
The former Massachusetts governor also gained ground in polls of the closely contested "swing states" that will decide the election, although Obama stayed ahead in most.
Greg Valliere, who analyzes politics for investors at Potomac Research Group, said he thought Ryan "won on points," but that Biden energized the Democrats and stopped the slide.
"This entertaining debate was all about Biden, who easily cleared a low bar," Valliere said in a note to clients on Friday.
Biden strongly questioned many of the Republicans' policies. He pounced upon Romney's Byzantine tax returns, the Republican's suggestion to let U.S. automakers go bankrupt, his proposal to let struggling homeowners lose their houses, and his dismissal of 47 percent of the public as unproductive parasites.
Republicans panned Biden, faulting him for smiling too much and, they said, being rude to Ryan during their animated encounter. But Ryan also seemed to smirk, employing a boyish head tilt and a smile melting into a frown at both ends.
Some viewers thought Ryan lacked the fire necessary to win hearts.
"I expected Ryan to fight harder. He wasn't aggressive enough when he was constantly interrupted," said Scott Preston, a small business owner in Columbus, Ohio, who expressed concern that the Republican nominees are becoming too moderate.
One key observer gave Biden an unflinchingly positive review.
Obama watched the Biden-Ryan clash on board Air Force One as he returned from a day of campaigning in Miami.
"I thought Joe Biden was terrific tonight. I could not be prouder of him. I think he made a very strong case," Obama told reporters as he headed back to the White House.
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington and Alina Selyukh in Columbus, Ohio; Editing by Karey Wutkowski and Jackie Frank)
(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2012. Check for restrictions at: http://about.reuters.com/fulllegal.asp