Biden vs. Ryan: What to Watch for in the Debate

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Mandel NGAN / Nicholas KAMM / AFP / Getty Images

Vice President Joe Biden, left, at the White House on April 12, 2011; Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan in Washington on April 5, 2011

Generally speaking, it takes a political junkie to get excited about a vice-presidential debate. Sure, showdowns between candidates can be interesting, and occasionally they become truly significant after the fact if some defining moment — “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” — ricochets around the media. But if anyone can find a voter who changes his or her mind based on which No. 2 argued better, make that person an exhibit at the Smithsonian.

That said, in Danville, Ky., on Thursday night, Joe Biden will participate in the second vice-presidential debate in a row to draw an unusual amount of interest. Four years ago, the ratings for Biden’s showdown with Sarah Palin were higher than those for any of the presidential debates. (The night is perhaps best remembered for Palin’s repeated winks at the camera.) This time, interest is running higher than normal thanks to the sense that Mitt Romney’s thumping of Barack Obama in the first presidential debate blew a hole in the Obama campaign’s hull. Suddenly, one debate seems capable of reshaping the race, and suddenly the Obama team needs a shift in momentum. And while Paul Ryan may be no Sarah Palin, he is among the more polarizing running mates in history, sure to draw a surplus of both admirers and haters.

(PHOTOS: Notes from the Campaign Trail with Paul Ryan)

So, what to expect? Here are four key themes to watch for:

Ryan plan vs. Obama record. Count on Biden going hard after the Ryan plan, the House budget document for which his opponent is famous (Obama once said it contains a vision of “social Darwinism”). During a recent campaign swing to Florida, Biden warned seniors that the Medicare-reform component of the Ryan plan, which Romney has adopted, would “fundamentally change Medicare. They’d turn it into a voucher program.” (Biden usually doesn’t note that, under the plan, seniors can remain in traditional Medicare if they want.) We’re likely to hear the same on Thursday night. He’ll try to pin down Ryan — more effectively than Obama did Romney — on the elusive details of the Romney-Ryan tax-reform plan. And he may repeat past assaults on Ryan for votes he cast in Congress that increased the national debt.

For his part, Ryan will parry on Medicare by noting Obamacare’s $716 billion in cuts to the program. Then he will light into the Obama Administration’s jobs record and the growing national debt. (Ryan’s campaign events often feature a large digital debt clock ticking away above the stage.) He’s likely to taunt Biden for recently turning $1 trillion in new taxes on the wealthy into an applause line. And on foreign policy, Ryan seems primed to make Biden squirm over new revelations about the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and to make the larger argument that U.S. foreign policy is “unraveling” worldwide.

Does experience matter? If Ryan goes after Biden on foreign policy, he’ll be staging an assault on the Vice President’s turf. Biden is a true foreign policy expert who, if only by dint of experience, could likely talk circles around his 42-year-old budget-focused foe. Biden will want to show off the depth of his knowledge — and put Ryan on the spot if possible — without seeming to talk down to his opponent. (The debate moderator, ABC News national-security reporter Martha Raddatz, is also likely to ask tough foreign policy questions.) Ryan, on the other hand, might turn Biden’s experience against him, noting that Biden has been in Washington 26 years longer than Ryan, presenting himself as a tribune of fresh, new ideas. And if Biden leans heavily on the killing of Osama bin Laden, Ryan might remind Biden that he advised Obama against undertaking that mission.

(MORE: Do Vice-Presidential Debates Matter?)

Working-class heroes. Biden and Ryan will compete to be the true champion of blue collar America. Biden takes special pride in his Scranton, Pa., Catholic roots — and he can lyricize about the working man better than almost anyone else in American politics. (How many of those hard-working stiffs will be tuned in to this debate instead of the baseball playoffs is another matter.) Biden is likely to deliver a rousing account of Obama’s auto-industry bailout, for instance. But Ryan will fight for the same piece of turf. On the stump, he has been playing up his small-town Wisconsin roots and cultural conservatism (he tries not to spotlight the fact that he’s also a millionaire). Ryan likes to remind voters of Obama’s 2008 riff about voters who “cling to guns or religion,” then declare, “I’m a Catholic deer hunter — guilty as charged.” By many accounts, Palin managed to out-populist Biden in 2008.

The gaffe factor. No discussion of a Joe Biden appearance could be complete without noting that there’s no telling what might happen anytime the man speaks extemporaneously for an extended period of time. Democrats can take comfort, however, in the memory that his debate with Palin as well as his many 2008 Democratic primary debates were largely Bidenism-free. As for Ryan, he’s a far more disciplined speaker, though we’ve seen recently that he can founder under pressure. And as Dan Quayle learned, you can lose a vice-presidential debate simply by being on the receiving end of a great zinger. Biden’s got some of those too. Which could make things entertaining for whoever is actually watching the debate undercard.

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