By Samuel P. Jacobs
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - He is known for his blunt, unvarnished opinions, but U.S. Vice President Joe Biden showed something else in his arsenal during his debate on Thursday against Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan: the smirk.
Well, not just the smirk, there was also the laugh and the exasperated grin.
Biden's expressions during the vice presidential debate - used mostly to theatrically convey his dismay, disbelief or amusement at various points Ryan was making - became a part of the show during the 90-minute face-off.
Sitting a few feet away across the table from the Republican vice presidential nominee, Biden smirked, lifted his eyes to the ceiling, and gave mocking smiles. He raised his hands in the air at one point; at another he mouthed, "Not true," when Ryan was talking.
The 69-year-old Biden - whose reactions lit up Twitter and other social media with criticism and praise - wasn't the only one making faces.
Ryan, 42, employed his own signature expression throughout the contest, a boyish head tilt with a smile that melts into a frown at both ends. It's a look that can be read a number of ways, but on this night mostly seemed to express sympathy for someone whose ideas have gone astray.
Nor was Biden the only candidate who got in a laugh. At one point both Biden and Ryan provided a translation for moderator Martha Raddatz after Biden criticized Ryan's plans as "a bunch of stuff."
"What does that mean, a bunch of stuff?" Raddatz asked.
"It's Irish," Ryan said. Biden agreed.
'A HAPPY WARRIOR'
There wasn't much else the two agreed on.
A number of times Biden didn't let Ryan finish a thought, a departure from Democratic President Barack Obama's laid-back demeanor in the first presidential debate.
Biden interrupted so frequently that Republican operatives and campaign aides to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney kept a running tally of the intrusions on Twitter.
Ryan suggested that Biden's behavior signaled desperation.
"Mr. Vice President, I know you are under a lot of duress to make up for lost ground," Ryan said.
Biden immediately uncorked his biggest throaty laugh of the night.
"... But I think people would be better served if we don't keep interrupting each other," Ryan said.
To Biden's supporters, the vice president's expressions struck just the right tone for a campaign that is seeking to discredit Romney and Ryan as being misleading or dishonest on a range of issues.
Biden is "a happy warrior," said Obama campaign manager Jim Messina.
Not surprisingly, Romney's campaign saw Biden's performance as unsteady and in contrast with they saw as Ryan's maturity.
On Fox News, Republican strategist Karl Rove compared Biden's laughter with former Vice President Al Gore's many sighs during his debate against George W. Bush in 2000, a habit that was roundly derided.
The Republican National Committee quickly released an online video after the debate ended entitled, "Laughing at the Issues."
Biden's sardonic mirth underscored his message that he did not take Romney, Ryan, or their proposals seriously. He referred to Sarah Palin, his opponent in the 2008 vice presidential debate, and sought to link Ryan to a candidate who was judged by many as unprepared for the job.
Highlighting his 27-year age difference with Ryan, Biden played up his status as a player in Washington for the past four decades, as a U.S. senator and then vice president. He noted that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - whom Biden called "Bibi" - has "been my friend for 39 years."
When Ryan compared his tax proposals with the economic policies of President John F. Kennedy, Biden quipped, "Oh, now you're Jack Kennedy?"
With that, Biden summoned perhaps the most memorable line in vice-presidential debate history when, in 1988, George H.W. Bush's running mate Dan Quayle was dismissed by Democrat Lloyd Bentsen for comparing himself to Kennedy, the Democratic icon.
Not all conservatives appreciated Ryan's restraint.
Media mogul Rupert Murdoch gave the Republican a terse pan on Twitter: "Ryan too polite to interrupt and score points," Murdoch said.
(This story corrected spelling of Obama's first name in paragraph 11)
(Editing by David Lindsey, Christopher Wilson and Vicki Allen)