Vice President Joe Biden will step on the stage at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky for tonight’s vice- presidential debate in the role of the relief pitcher for the starter who seemingly got knocked off his game.
Tonight’s debate will cover foreign and domestic topics, divided into nine timed segments of approximately 10 minutes each. The moderator is ABC News senior foreign affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz. The performance of PBS’ Jim Lehrer as moderator of the first presidential debate has been widely criticized so all eyes will be on Raddatz to see if she will have a firmer control of the debate.
After the somewhat lackluster performance of President Obama in his first match-up against Mitt Romney, allowing his Republican challenger to get a second-wind, Biden is now being asked to regain the incumbent’s advantage. With polls showing a slight surge by the Romney ticket, tonight’s debate is important to both campaigns.
Biden, a seasoned Capitol Hill veteran, is expected to deliver for the Democratic ticket. Political pundits are eager to see Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s command of the stage in a live debate setting.
Ryan is expected to be the message carrier for the Romney ticket and will likely follow the script of criticizing the President over the pace of the economic recovery, and seeking to exploit the tragic events at the U.S. embassy in Libya that claimed the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three American staff. Ryan is getting media attention for his role in fashioning the GOP budget response and his Medicare proposal, that that is expected to come out in the debate. Ryan is expected to take a more aggressive posture than his running mate, as this is the only debate between the vice presidential candidates.
Given his experience and familiarity with Congress, Vice President Biden is expected to challenge Ryan’s budget assertions and years of service on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, including as chairman of the panel. Democratic supporters believe Biden will have an advantage during the segments devoted to foreign policy.
Political pundits agree the Vice President’s Achilles heel is his tendency to run off the rails and make unscripted comments. In debate preparation the Obama campaign likely put forth scenarios to Biden that could invite trouble or misinterpretation in his response.
For Ryan, tonight is also his real national debut. His speech at the Republican National Convention pales in importance to how he performs at this debate. While the vice presidency receives short shrift in the eyes of the electorate, history suggests that attention should be paid to the person who could infamously be one heartbeat away from the Oval Office. In the last 50 years we have witnessed two occasions when the Vice President was elevated to the presidency. Ryan has been the GOP’s pit bull but now he must convince the electorate that he is presidential material. Though he must tow the Romney campaign line, Ryan has made enough waves himself in Congress to also have to defend his own policy positions. How he does that and his ability to do so without sounding smug could influence post-debate perceptions about his performance.
Biden is not without his own hurdles either; the most obvious being maintaining his train of thought and not free-styling at the microphone. Despite his many years in Washington, Biden often implodes when he tries too hard to connect to the public. He often takes that one extra step that can land him in a communications ditch. For the Vice President to be successful tonight, he must resist the ad libs and convince voters his ticket has superior governing capabilities. Biden’s compelling personal narrative should also be interjected to give voters a sense of his commitment and passion to public service.
In many ways, if Biden can remain focused and on message, Vice President Biden is the campaign’s secret weapon. He is to Obama what Dick Cheney was to George W. Bush, the elder statesman who could possibly bring comfort to partisans and independent voters who believe experience and knowing the ways of Washington is important to governing. Biden can’t come off as lecturing Ryan but if he can paint the Wisconsin legislator as a novice it could have the same effect.
Tonight’s debate is the undercard of next week’s main event at Hofstra University when President Obama and Mitt Romney will square off for their second debate. A draw does not help the President’s electoral fortunes; Vice President Biden must at least deliver a technical knockout to shift the momentum in the closing weeks of the campaign.