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US vice-presidential candidates Joe Biden and Paul Ryan clashed sharply in their only debate, amid tightening polls ahead of the 6 November election.

Thursday night’s debate saw feisty exchanges on national security, the economy, taxes and healthcare.

Democrat Joe Biden was aggressive, frequently interrupting his rival as he defended President Barack Obama.

Republican Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan was comparatively calm in his first debate on the national stage.

The head-to-head came as Democrats try to rejuvenate their campaign after what was widely seen as a poor debate performance by Barack Obama last week.

The Republican challenger, former Massachusetts governor and businessman Mitt Romney, has gained steadily in the polls as a result.

The president has acknowledged he was “too polite”, and it appeared his campaign unleashed Joe Biden on Thursday night to attack Mitt Romney on taxes, government spending, the economy and other issues.

The vice-president repeatedly cut off Paul Ryan, chuckling, rolling his eyes and raising his hands in apparent exasperation, even as he referred to his rival as “my friend”.

But Paul Ryan seemed not to be rattled. His goal was to defend Mitt Romney’s recent gains against a renewed onslaught from Barack Obama, analysts said.

On stage at Centre College in Kentucky, the vice-presidential candidates jousted as moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News sought to keep order.

The debate opened with an exchange on Libya, where a US ambassador was killed last month in what the Obama administration now calls a terrorist attack.

Joe Biden defended the Obama administration’s handling of the situation, as well as its initially inaccurate characterization of the incident as a reaction to an anti-Islamic video made in the US.

And he pivoted to attack Mitt Romney, saying the Republican’s decision to hold a political press conference the morning after the attack was “not presidential leadership”.

In one of many barbs, he said Paul Ryan’s criticisms of the administration’s handling of the crisis were “a bunch of malarkey. Not a single thing he said is accurate”.

Paul Ryan, meanwhile, said the administration had disregarded diplomats’ requests for more security in Libya.

And in a charge he repeated later, Paul Ryan said: “What we are watching on our TV screens is the unravelling of the Obama foreign policy.”

The men argued about Iran and the US relationship with Israel, but showed little substantive difference between their tickets’ respective policies.

“When Barack Obama was elected, [Iran] had enough fissile material – nuclear material to make one bomb,” Paul Ryan said.

“Now they have enough for five.”

Joe Biden said international sanctions against Iran had crippled that nation’s economy, and challenged Paul Ryan to clarify where Republican policy on Iran differs from the administration’s.

“So all this bluster I keep hearing, all this loose talk, what are they talking about?” he asked.

On the economy, Joe Biden said the president had inherited a nation teetering on ruin – a result, he said repeatedly, of the Republican policies of George W Bush.

And he defended the president’s remedies, especially a programme – that Mitt Romney opposed – to save US auto manufacturers from bankruptcy.

“We knew we had to act for the middle class,” Joe Biden said.

“We immediately went out and rescued General Motors.”

He added: “What did Romney do? Romney said, <<No, let Detroit go bankrupt>>.”

Joe Biden also unleashed a broadside against Mitt Romney’s recently publicized comments that the 47% of Americans who pay no federal income tax are dependent on government, consider themselves victims, and should take responsibility for themselves.

“I’ve never met two guys who are more down on America across the board,” he said, referring to Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.

Paul Ryan sought to deflect the attack with a story about Mitt Romney’s personal generosity and by referring to Joe Biden’s own record of verbal blunders.

He acknowledged Barack Obama had inherited an economy near collapse, but added: “We’re going in the wrong direction.”

He noted the continuing high unemployment rate and other grim statistics.

“This is not what a real recovery looks like,” the congressman said, promising that Mitt Romney’s tax plans would add jobs and promote economic growth.

Later, the two outlined their competing plans on the Medicare healthcare programme for over-65s.

Joe Biden defended the administration’s 2010 health insurance overhaul, dubbed Obamacare; Paul Ryan derided it as a government takeover of the healthcare industry and repeated a disputed assertion that Barack Obama had pulled money from Medicare in order to fund it.

With the election less than four weeks away, the rivals were tasked with keeping their respective campaigns competitive, as new polls suggest Mitt Romney has narrowed or erased Barack Obama’s lead in several key swing states.

The two candidates are virtually tied in Florida and Virginia while Barack Obama still leads in Ohio, but by a slimmer margin.

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US vice-presidential candidates Joe Biden and Paul Ryan are set to meet in their only debate, as polling suggests the election race is tightening.

Vice-President Joe Biden and Republican Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin congressman, will clash for 90 minutes in Danville, Kentucky.

Democrats are hoping to change the campaign narrative after what was widely seen as a poor performance by President Barack Obama last week.

Barack Obama said on Wednesday he had been “too polite” to his rival, Mitt Romney.

The Obama campaign has since accused Mitt Romney, a Republican former business star and Massachusetts governor, of shifting his policy positions and of lying during their meeting in Denver, Colorado last week.

Thursday’s debate will be moderated by Martha Raddatz, senior foreign affairs correspondent for ABC News, and will cover both domestic and foreign policy.

It is set to begin at 21:00 EST at Centre College, a small liberal arts university about 80 miles from the city of Louisville.

The debate will be split into nine 10-minute segments.

Vice-President Joe Biden and Republican Paul Ryan will clash for 90 minutes in Danville

Vice-President Joe Biden and Republican Paul Ryan will clash for 90 minutes in Danville

The two vice-presidential candidates are tasked with keeping their respective campaigns competitive, as new polls suggest Barack Obama’s lead in several key swing states has been somewhat erased by Mitt Romney.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released on Thursday showed Mitt Romney making gains in three states said to be essential to his presidential hopes.

The two candidates are virtually ties in Florida and Virginia while Barack Obama still leads in Ohio, but by a decreased margin. The Romney campaign has added extra campaign stops in Ohio in the coming weeks, aware that no Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio.

Also on Thursday, a New York Times/CBS News poll suggested that likely voters in Colorado, Virginia and Wisconsin – all states “in play” on 6 November – gave Mitt Romney stronger marks for leadership than previously.

However, the new poll showed no sharp movements in support for either candidates.

Joe Biden, 69, is known for his frank but folksy manner and foreign policy experience, while Paul Ryan, 42, is known as the Republicans’ budget hawk, serving in Congress for 14 years.

Both have kept lower profiles in the past week as they prepared for the debate.

“Joe just needs to be Joe,” Barack Obama told ABC News on Wednesday.

“Congressman Ryan is a smart and effective speaker. But his ideas are the wrong ones.”

The president played down the importance of his own first debate performance, saying: “What’s important is the fundamentals of what this race is about haven’t changed.”

Senior Obama adviser David Axelrod told CBS on Thursday that he believes “the big challenge for [Biden] is to pin Congressman Ryan down”.

“Right now the Romney campaign is running away from some of their positions like unwanted stepchildren.”

Mitt Romney expressed confidence in his running mate at a campaign stop in Ohio: “I think Paul Ryan will do great.”

The Wisconsin representative himself said he was not intimidated by Joe Biden.

“Joe Biden’s one of the most experienced debaters we have in modern politics,” Paul Ryan told reporters.

“But the Achilles’ heel he has is President Obama’s record.”

The debate is expected to focus on the federal budget plans Paul Ryan put forward as the chair of the House budget committee.

While the Obama campaign has sought to portray Paul Ryan’s place on the Romney ticket as an endorsement of the Ryan plan, the Romney campaign has worked to play down that impression.

“You have to remember that there is [a] Romney-Ryan ticket and there’s one presidential candidate,” Mitt Romney adviser Kevin Madden said.

“So the focus again will be on what Governor Romney’s plan is for reforming Washington.”

Joe Biden is said to have studied Paul Ryan’s most recent budget plan during his debate preparations.

The event is not expected to draw the approximately 70 million people who watched four years ago when Joe Biden debated Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

That debate did little to change the 2008 campaign but helped Sarah Palin after a series of disastrous interviews.

“Normally vice-presidential debates are good political theatre and sort of interesting from a talent scout standpoint, as you evaluate the up-and-comers on the political stage,” Alan Schroeder, author of a book on presidential debates, told the Associated Press.

“But this year could be different because of the negative reviews of Obama’s performance. That heightens expectations for this second debate.”