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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne. Last night brought a vice presidential debate rare in the history of such debates, that stood to make a real difference in a presidential campaign. The two candidates - Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Paul Ryan - sparred on a stage in Danville, Ky., and it was a lively 90 minutes.
For a close read on what was said, we're joined now by a team of NPR correspondents. And let's start with NPR's Michele Kelemen because the debate opened with a question by moderator Martha Raddatz, about the September 11th attack in Libya - now deemed to have been by terrorists - that left four Americans dead, including the ambassador. In the exchanges that followed, here's what congressman Paul Ryan said.
(SOUNDBITE OF VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES' DEBATE)
MONTAGNE: Michele, our diplomatic correspondent, is that what happened?
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Well, he's right that security officials who had served in Libya in the months leading up to this, said they wanted beefed-up security; and were told by their superiors at the State Department, that they wouldn't get it. And Biden was wrong when he said, "we didn't know they wanted more security." There were cables sent back to Washington.
But, you know, these security officials weren't asking for a big Marine detachment. They wanted just to keep the extra guards that they had, in place a little bit longer. And even one of the whistleblowers who testified at a House hearing this week, said that the assault on Sept. 11th was like nothing he had seen while he was in Libya; and a few extra guards, in that sort of situation, may not have been enough.
MONTAGNE: And also, during the debate Joe Biden was challenged about why the Obama administration has changed its story about what, exactly, happened that night. And here's some of what he said.
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The intelligence community told us that. As they learned more facts about exactly what happened, they changed their assessment.
KELEMEN: And at issue, Renee, is whether or not this - as the U.S. initially said - started as a protest against an anti-Islam video, and then got out of hand. The trouble is that the State Department official gave us a detailed account of that night; and said it was quiet that day, outside the consulate in Benghazi. And only late at night, when guards heard gunfire outside - they looked at a security camera, and saw heavily armed men breaching the compound. They didn't see a protest.
MONTAGNE: And there were also several exchanges about Iran. Paul Ryan, at one point, made this assertion.
: When Barack Obama was elected, they had enough fissile material - nuclear material - to make one bomb. Now, they have enough for five.
KELEMEN: Not quite true. Iran has been enriching uranium, but there's no evidence that they're anywhere close to enriching up to 90 percent, which is what's needed for a nuclear bomb.
MONTAGNE: Paul Ryan also criticized the administration for watering down sanctions against Iran.
KELEMEN: The White House has waived congressional sanctions on countries that have cut back on oil imports from Iran. But it's also worked with Europe, in particular, on tough international sanctions that have hurt Iran's economy. Oil exports are down sharply, and the currency has plummeted.
MONTAGNE: Another country, Afghanistan, was also part of this debate. And so let me turn to you, Tom Bowman. You're Pentagon correspondent; made many, many reporting trips there. Let's hear what Joe Biden said about U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.
BIDEN: We are leaving. We are leaving in 2014. Period.
MONTAGNE: Well, that's the goal. Is that what's actually going to happen?
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: No. It's not going to happen. U.S. combat forces will leave, Renee, at the end of 2014. But after that, there'll be some type of follow-on American force - likely, thousands of special forces, soldiers on counterterror mission as well as U.S. military trainers. The Obama administration signed a 10-year security agreement with the Afghan government that talks about these two goals. And as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, after the agreement was signed in May, quote, "The most important point is, we're not going anyplace."
As far as the Romney campaign is concerned, the governor says it's a goal to turn over security to Afghan forces by 2014. Romney says he first wants to listen to American military commanders in Afghanistan, and then determine the way ahead. But it's important to note that both camps - both Republicans and Democrats - agree that some type of follow-on force will be needed after 2014.
MONTAGNE: And both Biden and Ryan drew some strong lines on how they differed on defense spending. National security correspondent Larry Abramson is also with us. What did you hear, Larry?
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Well, there's a big difference between a Romney and a Obama administration's defense budget. President Obama has introduced a half a trillion dollars in defense cuts over the next decade, and there could be more cuts on the way. Paul Ryan called the White House out about that, and said that the White House plans to cut 100,000 troops from the Army and the Marines, would weaken the U.S. military.
The only problem is that congressman Ryan, and the rest of the Congress, agreed to these very same cuts - that include defense cuts - when they voted for the budget control act last year. And during the debate, Vice President Biden pointed that out, but congressman Ryan distanced himself from that decision. The other issue, of course, is how the Romney administration would pay for these increases in defense. And basically, what they say is they're going to create a healthier economy, more jobs; and that will be more tax revenue that they can spend on defense.
MONTAGNE: Well, since we're talking about spending and cutting spending, let's talk about taxes which came up last night. There was quite an exchange about Mitt Romney's tax plan.
BIDEN: The only way you can find $5 trillion in loopholes, is cut the mortgage deduction for middle-class people; cut the health-care deduction for middle-class people; take away their ability to get a tax break to send their kids to college. That's why they're...
MARTHA RADDATZ: Is he wrong about that?
: He is wrong about that. They're...
BIDEN: How's that?
: You can cut tax rates by 20 percent, and still preserve these important preferences for middle-class taxpayers...
BIDEN: Not mathematically possible.
: It is mathematically possible.
MONTAGNE: Well, we have John Ydstie, our economics correspondent, to help us with this one. Is it mathematically possible?
JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: Well, Renee, the short answer is probably not; certainly not, if Gov. Romney plans to keep the other promises in his tax proposal - you know, the proposal to cut rates overall by 20 percent, and then fully pay for that by ending deductions and closing loopholes, so as not to increase the deficit. What congressman Ryan was saying is that you could preserve a couple of the very biggest deductions there are - including the home-mortgage deduction for middle-class families - and still stick to the plan, and not increase the deficit. But a number of economists have said really, the only way Romney could hope to get the nearly $5 trillion in savings he needs to pay for the rate cuts, is to end the mortgage deduction.
MONTAGNE: And what about this statement that Joe Biden made, about the president's tax plan?
BIDEN: The middle class will pay less, and people making a million dollars or more will begin to contribute slightly more. Let me get...
MONTAGNE: Now, is that right?
YDSTIE: Well, it's not just millionaires who would be contributing more. The Obama tax plan would raise taxes for individuals making more than $200,000 a year, and families making more than $250,000 a year.
MONTAGNE: Let's turn to a completely different subject that came up in last night's debate, and that's the issue of abortion. This exchange begins with moderator Martha Raddatz.
RADDATZ: If the Romney-Ryan ticket is elected, should those who believe that abortion should remain legal be worried?
: We don't think that unelected judges should make this decision; that people, through their elected representatives and reaching a consensus in society through the democratic process, should make this determination.
MONTAGNE: Julie Rovner, you're a health-care correspondent. Talk to us about that. What does it mean?
JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: It's pretty clear here that the answer to that question is not no, from Paul Ryan; and therein lies a problem for the man at the top of the Republican ticket, Mitt Romney. He spent a lot of time, the last month, trying pretty hard to at least appear to be moderating his position on abortion - although every time Romney says in front of one crowd, something like he'd have no abortion-restricting legislation on his agenda if he was elected, his staff then quickly walks it back.
Romney's trying to keep the votes of his anti-abortion base but win over some more moderate women, in particular. What Ryan - who's a much more ardent anti-abortion congressman - said here, isn't going to help that very much.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Julie Rovner, thank you very much.
ROVNER: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: NPR's John Ydstie, Larry Abramson, Tom Bowman and Michele Kelemen, thank all of you as well.
YDSTIE: Thank you.
ABRAMSON: You're welcome.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.
MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.