Thursday marks round two in the debate for American hearts and minds. This round poses the grizzly veteran, Scranton Joe Biden, against the Wisconsin Kid Paul Ryan. By now, the fallout from the shellacking that Obama took in the first presidential debate is being reflected in the polls, as Romney has surged to a minuscule national lead and has closed the gap in important swing states.
Normally, the vice presidential debates are an undercard that people pay attention to but doesn't have much impact on the presidential race. More often than not, they provide some fodder for comedians like Tina Fey to boost their career on shows like Saturday Night Live. However, the vice presidential debate this year has a lot more to offer, and a lot more on the line. Here are five things to watch:
Biden: Biden has been down this road before. He has been a presidential candidate more than once, meaning he's had multiple opportunities to hone his craft of communication skills. Moreover, he's not reliant on prepared notes or teleprompters like the head of his ticket is. While that may contribute to the occasional Bidenism on the stump, it also means that Biden is able to handle the ebb and flow of a debate.
Ryan: Remember when Paul Ryan spoke at the Bipartisan White House Budget Summit? Much of Paul Ryan's analysis on the health care bill was spot on. Moreover, his analysis was presented in a cogent, coherent way that proved to be persuasive and compelling. The fact remains that our economy will continue to remain a strong focus of the next two debates and the campaign stump. As the House Budget Committee Chairman, and a seasoned politician in his own right, Paul Ryan is more than capable of going toe-to-toe.
Biden: Biden has noticeably been absent from the spotlight. While Ryan has done at least 200 interviews as the Republican vice presidential nominee, Biden has had only a few. As such, his practice in front of a room full of media has been severely limited. True, he'll spend his time practicing before the debate, but game-day practice builds on past experience and lessons, which Biden seems to have a severe deficit compared to his opponent. Furthermore, he's not going up against a kooky Alaskan diva this time. As mentioned above, Paul Ryan is a seasoned veteran himself, and that might invite more Bidenisms than Obama really wants.
Ryan: The Republican budget is Ryan's budget, and it has been used against Republicans in the past. As such, Ryan may take a lot of flack from Biden on the issue of vouchers and Medicare reform that Ryan is proposing. Biden's already started launching grenades at Ryan in this fashion while campaigning. Furthermore, Ryan's a staunch social conservative, which might given Biden the opportunity to distract from the economic issues that dominated the first presidential debate and the campaign up to this point.
3. What They Need to Do
Biden: Simply put, he needs to do what Obama couldn't do. Polls are relatively useless in the role of predicting an electoral winner, but they do help the public to see where the trends lie in terms of the presidential contest. Right now, Romney's showing a surge on the heels of the drubbing he delivered to Obama. Biden cannot be seen as contributing to that weak performance with one of his own. Much like Romney had to own the debate, Biden has to as well. His performance must match that of Dick Cheney in 2004.
Ryan: Unlike Biden, Ryan presents a long-term party leader for Republicans, even if he and Romney prove to be unsuccessful in their bid for the White House. Up to this point, Ryan has been a known quantity among Republicans, but remained relatively unknown to the population at large. As such, he can either make or break his future political fortunes on the back of one political performance such as this debate. One of his contemporaries, Bobby Jindal, stymied his own meteoric rise with a poor response to the State of the Union.
Biden: Much has been made this week about Barack Obama being an invited wedding guest to the wedding of the moderator, Martha Raddatz. Despite the cries of bias by conservatives, she'll likely make every attempt to be openly fair and straightforward in moderating the debate. However, bias isn't completely removed by any correspondent, and Biden might have an advantage to take care of should he be prepared to manipulate those biases in his favor.
Ryan: Since his nomination as the vice presidential candidate, Ryan has taken on more of a folksy campaigner as opposed to the policy wonk that he's normally known as. This will be critical in the debates. As mentioned before, debates are not about winning all the arguments. Debates are about being persuasive, and the subtle difference between the two means that Ryan has to demonstrate for voters that his ticket's presidential candidate is the preferable choice for Americans.
Biden is going to come out for the throat in this debate. Unlike debating Palin in 2008, when he couldn't come across as patronizing or bullish towards a woman, he has a young, vocal Republican who has invited scrutiny over his budget proposals in the past. Ryan should be ready to come out swinging as well given that the strong, aggressive performance by Romney proved to change minds on the presidential trail.
From the start, the debate will be a knock down, drag out fight between the two political veterans. As such, look for the debate to come across as a draw, with partisans of both sides claiming victory off of a strong performance and independents not being persuaded to vote for one ticket or another going forward. They're waiting for the next round between the top of the ticket, and the under-card won't provide much to answer what questions they have.