By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
FRANKFORT, Ky. —
Vice presidential debates are usually a sideshow to the main attraction, but that’s hardly the case for Thursday’s meeting between Democratic incumbent Joe Biden and Republican Rep. Paul Ryan at Centre College in Danville.
This veep debate brings extra weight as Biden tries to reverse momentum from Republican Mitt Romney’s strong showing in the first presidential debate last week against a weak performance by President Barack Obama.
Ryan will be trying to build on that momentum and prove he can perform on a big stage.
“I think the shadow that hangs over this debate is obviously what happened in the first debate,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, the Senate minority leader. “My assumption is that Biden will try to be way more aggressive and try in some ways to make up for the president’s pitiful performance last week.”
McConnell isn’t the only Bluegrass State pol handicapping Thursday’s meeting in his home state.
U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, agrees Biden faces pressure to do better than Obama.
“I think he will be more aggressive, but I think the big thing Vice President Biden will do is to talk about the economy and the choices we face in very human terms,” said Yarmuth.
Danny Briscoe, an Obama supporter and former member of the Democratic National Committee, said Biden’s task is simple: Expose Ryan’s positions on budget matters and remind voters of his conservative stances on social issues.
“Ryan was picked (as Romney’s running mate) because he was the author of a budget plan that would put seniors on a voucher system,” said Briscoe. “He wants to cut Medicaid, cut Social Security. He wants to give defense contractors more money, and he wants to reduce taxes on millionaires — all on the backs of the middle class.”
He said Biden should remind viewers that Ryan opposed legislation requiring equal pay for women and has sponsored legislation that would outlaw abortion in cases of rape, incest and life of the mother.
In the vice presidential debate four years ago, Biden had to be more reserved to avoid the appearance he might be patronizing his opponent, Sarah Palin.
That’s not the case this time.
“I expect the vice president to come at me like a cannonball,” Ryan said last week.
But that creates potential danger for Biden, who has a history of verbal gaffes.
John David Dyche, a Republican political columnist, said Biden’s handlers “are using everything short of electro-shock conditioning to make sure he does not wander from script and say something colorful or, even worse, honest.
Ryan, on the other hand, “must avoid any stumbles, especially in areas outside his expertise like foreign policy, a field in which the moderator, (ABC’s) Martha Raddatz, is knowledgeable,” said Dyche, who, like Briscoe, is a Centre alumnus.
Dyche said even a small Ryan misstep could “feed the narrative of Biden as an upset winner.”
McConnell said the campaigns are clearly staking much on the debate, since both Biden and Ryan have disappeared from the campaign trail to prepare.
“There couldn’t be anything more pressure packed than a live audience of millions of people. That’s about as pressure packed as you can imagine,” he said.
Thursday’s format will be different than the stand-up scene at last week’s presidential debate. Biden and Ryan will sit at a table with Raddatz.
Yarmuth said a more relaxed setting should help Biden avoid some of the unscripted verbal gaffes he’s known for.
But Dyche said the dynamic could also change because Raddatz, as moderator, will presumably try to avoid the kind of criticism directed at the News Hour’s Jim Lehrer, who allowed Romney and Obama to exceed their allotted time for answers when he moderated last week.
“The candidates need to be prepared for that because a moderator has the ability to make a debater look bad,” said Dyche.
McConnell said he expects a spirited exchange. “I think you’re going to have two smart men going at it.”
— Ronnie Ellis covers Kentucky politics and government for CNHI News Service. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.