* VP debates rarely alter voter preferences
* Obama leads Romney in latest Ohio polls
By Alina Selyukh
COLUMBUS, Ohio, Oct 12 (Reuters) - The U.S. vice presidential debate on Thursday grabbed voters’ attention but appeared to change few hearts in the capital of Ohio, a state that might hold the key to victory in the Nov. 6 election.
Democrats appreciated Vice President Joe Biden’s sharp tongue and welcomed his aggressive attacks in a debate performance that will help to stabilize President Barack Obama’s campaign after a weak performance in his own debate last week.
Republicans criticized Biden as unprofessional and annoying for grinning sarcastically as his Republican rival Paul Ryan spoke, while Ryan got high marks for avoiding wonky discourse and hitting hard against his famously forceful opponent.
All were surprised - for better or worse - to see Biden emerge from the debate gaffe-free.
Joanne Harvey, a registered independent who voted for Obama in 2008, watched the debate at a bar viewing party organized by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign.
She said she had been leaning Republican because of Obama’s frequent of use of executive orders as well as the state of the economy and his healthcare system overhaul - but had earlier found Ryan too young and immature.
“I don’t think the debate will have much impact (on the votes). But I think Ryan showed he was more mature, smarter and more articulate than everyone thought he is,” said the small-business owner, who described Ryan as “very presidential.”
Temi Ogungbadero, who is also registered independent, said he went into the debate hoping to get a sense of Ryan’s personality and willing to be convinced, but emerged leaning Democratic more than before, put off by the Republican foreign policy proposals.
“I found him legitimately resentful toward the Middle East culture,” said the student at Columbus State Community College, who watched the debate with members of the college Democrats group.
Vice presidential debates rarely sway voters: Gallup has found that none of the eight such debates from 1976 to 2008 seemed to have meaningfully altered voter preferences.
But Thursday’s debate put pressure on Biden - whom one Democratic voter here dubbed “Obama’s wild side” - to help the Democrats rebound from Romney’s surprisingly strong debate performance last week.
For Wisconsin congressman Ryan, this was a first widely televised debate. His composed speech hit on many familiar talking points and raised applause from the friendly crowd at Marshall’s Restaurant and Bar.
But some found his reserved demeanor lacking the fire necessary to win hearts.
“I expected Ryan to fight harder. He wasn’t aggressive enough when he was constantly interrupted,” said Scott Preston, a small business owner who expressed concern that the Republican nominees were steering too much toward the middle.
“America loves football and if a team loses, they want it to go down fighting. ... I felt that he laid down a little bit trying to be too nice,” said Preston, who was at the viewing party that was also attended by Ohio Governor John Kasich.
No Republican presidential candidate has won an election without also winning Ohio. Romney could become the first one to do so but faces challenging voting math of having to win all other swing states if he doesn’t win Ohio.
Obama has a lead over Romney in the latest Ohio polls. On Thursday, a poll by NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist showed Obama ahead 51 percent to 45 percent, while a Rasmussen poll had Obama 1 point ahead at 48 percent.
Early voting is already under way in the state.