It was the classic standing eight count.
Ever since last Wednesday, Democrats had been staring despondently toward the center of the ring at their battered champ Barack Obama -- swaying, woozy, and punch drunk, after he had suffered through a devastating combination of body blows and roundhouses from Mitt Romney in the first presidential debate.
It was starting to look to a lot of Democrats like the fight was over.
The polls weren’t just tightening, in some cases they were starting to turn around.
And now, they were about to throw Joe Biden into the ring. Crusty, irascible, unpredictable and notoriously gaffe prone, there was no telling what would happen.
Privately, and not so privately, a lot of Democrats fretted that expecting Joe Biden to counter the trend would be like watching Rocky get whooped and hoping Burgess Meredith would climb into the ring and beat down Apollo Creed.
It was a wholly unreasonable expectation.
But then, last night, to the surprise of many Democrats, and some Republicans, including perhaps the earnest young supply-side congressman who sat across the table from Biden, the vice president did just that.
Pundits will tell you that there was no clear winner of last night’s one and only vice presidential debate in Kentucky, and snap polls taken after the debate bear that out.
[Joe Biden] was the old, out of shape corner man who had to first patch up the champ and stop the bleeding and then climb into the ring and take on the brash young contender, holding him off long enough for the boss to get back on his feet. Biden did that.
Fifty percent of those who responded to a CBS poll of undecideds gave Biden the edge, while the other half either thought Ryan won the debate (31 percent) or called it a draw (19 percent).
A CNN poll of registered voters was split with 48 percent calling the bout for Ryan while 44 percent declared Biden the winner, both well within the polls five point margin of error.
The pundits are wrong.
Simply by slugging it out with Ryan for 90 minutes last night, by giving no ground on issues ranging from U.S. policy toward Iraq to tax cuts for the one percent, to the issue of who cares more about the middle class, Biden won for the Democrats the most precious thing in the world to them; the time to make it back to their corner, patch up their wounds, and catch their breath before the next round begins.
It’s clear that Biden understood what he needed to do last night and he did it with unadulterated joy, mugging for the camera, rolling his eyes and flashing that “there you go again” sneer every time Ryan tried out one of his focus group tested attacks on the administration’s record.
He looked for all the world like an old bare-knuckled boxer from a bygone era in a sepia-toned silent newsreel.
All that was missing was a striped tank top and a handlebar mustache.
And it’s true that for all the theatrics, Biden never landed a knockout punch.
His clearly rehearsed, “so, now you’re Jack Kennedy” quip, may have conjured up the ghost of Lloyd Bentsen, but it didn’t really draw blood.
In fact, the most damaging blow of the evening – to either the vice president or the congressman – was landed by moderator Martha Raddatz, who after listening to Ryan go on for more than two minutes without ever answering her question about what particular loopholes a Romney-Ryan administration would close to pay for their budget-busting $5 trillion tax cut, cut him off, saying “So, no specifics?”
And it’s also true that Biden got knocked back on his heels once or twice during the debate.
His assertion that officials in Libya never asked for added security in advance of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate at Benghazi, an assertion that has been challenged by state department officials, will certainly draw fire, though Biden at least momentarily deflected attention from that by trotting out the quaint word “malarkey,” a move which instantly made the word the third most searched-for item on Google.
In fact, underneath the high dudgeon, there was a fairly high-minded discussion of policy, with Biden doing a far more able job than his boss did last week of defending not just the administration’s policies but the progressive ethos that underpins them, and Ryan making an articulate if incomplete case for unleashing the creative power of the markets at home and the need to restore America’s standing abroad.
It is possible that they each swayed a handful of the all important undecided voters, though just how much impact the debate had is, well, debatable.
It’s interesting to note that in a quick poll of undecided voters who had been assembled at CNN’s studios to watch the debate, Ryan had a slight edge, more so with the women in the group than with the men, despite the fact that his position on abortion remains problematic for a large number of women.
It may be that the pugilistic nature of Biden’s approach resonated with men, while women might have felt that Biden bullied the younger congressman.
If that turns out to be the case in broader polls, it may mean that both men failed, since Biden’s objective should have been to shore up support from Democratically inclined women, while Ryan needed to hang on to Republican leaning men.
But winning the undecideds really wasn’t what either man was there to do last night.
Ryan’s job was to consolidate the gains Romney had made last week in his trouncing of President Obama during last week’s debate, or at least not squander them. He did that.
Biden’s task was more complex.
He was the old, out of shape corner man who had to first patch up the champ and stop the bleeding and then climb into the ring and take on the brash young contender, holding him off long enough for the boss to get back on his feet. Biden did that.
He did it with such over the top, old timey, bare-knuckled enthusiasm that if Obama stops just short of whacking Mitt Romney in the face with a coal shovel at next week’s debate, he’ll seem measured and restrained by comparison.
Whether Obama takes advantage of that opportunity remains an open question. The only thing that’s certain right now is that the president has one hell of a corner man.
Seamus McGraw is a freelance journalist who has contributed to dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Playboy, The Forward, and Readers' Digest. He is the author of "The End of Country: Dispatches from the Frack Zone." He can be reached on Twitter @seamusmcgraw, or on Facebook at The End of Country.