The running mates clearly sensed that the stakes were higher than usual for their faceoff, and both played hardball throughout, frequently interrupting one another and challenging one another's assertions.
On television's split screens, Biden's body language — a montage of pained smiles, winces, head shakes and eye rolls — often screamed incredulity when Ryan was speaking.
"I know you're under a lot of duress to make up for lost ground," Ryan shot back at Biden at one point, "but I think people would be better served if we don't keep interrupting each other."
In one of the night's lighter moments, Ryan helpfully provided a translation of one of Biden's putdowns.
"This is a bunch of stuff," Biden said of Ryan's dismissive characterization of the president's Iran policy.
"What does that mean, a bunch of stuff?" asked moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News.
"It's Irish," Ryan offered.
"It is," Biden agreed, to laughter from the audience. "We Irish call it malarkey."
At another point, Ryan used Biden's own history of gaffes to explain away Romney's much-criticized comment dismissing the 47 percent of Americans who pay no income taxes, a comment Biden brought up repeatedly after Obama had failed to mention it in his debate.
"I think the vice president very well knows that sometimes the words don't come out of your mouth the right way," Ryan said.
There were spirited exchanges on taxes, abortion, Medicare, Libya, and more. It may not have broken new ground, but the conversation gave viewers a clear illustration of the sharp choices before them come Election Day.
"In case you haven't noticed, we have strong disagreements," Biden said in his closing statement. And then he distilled the Democrats' campaign pitch into a simple bid to give anxious Americans "a little bit of peace of mind."