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Debate strategy round two: Biden vs. Ryan

U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, speaks during an event at the Pentagon, on October 1, 2012 in Arlington, Virginia. Vice President Biden delivered remarks at the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) Program Transition Ceremony.
U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, speaks during an event at the Pentagon, on October 1, 2012 in Arlington, Virginia. Vice President Biden delivered remarks at the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) Program Transition Ceremony.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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Vice presidential debates are traditionally surrogate affairs, with each candidate for VPOTUS trying first to do no harm to their political party’s campaign with a scant few weeks before Election Day. But the stakes are higher this year.

The public perception of last week’s first presidential debate saw challenger Mitt Romney win nearly hands down, putting more pressure than usual on tonight’s only debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Romney’s running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. But there is a lot on the line; thirteen vice presidents have gone on to be president, either by election or after the death or resignation of their boss – meaning that nearly a third of vice presidents wind up in the White House.

What To Expect From Tonight’s Debate

Mark Barabak, political correspondent of the Los Angeles Times, shares some of his insight into what viewers should expect to see tonight, and just how influential tonight’s debate will be in terms of changing public opinion.

“I don’t think if we look back two or three weeks from now we would say, ‘Wow that night in Danville, Kentucky really turned the race.’ That being said, it is important… but what the Obama folks are hoping will happen tonight is it will break the momentum…and obviously the Romney team hope to build on his performance,” Barabak says.

The last debate had more viewers than expected, about 67 to 68 million. And its anticipated that many will be interested to watch how the Vice Presidential candidates will do tonight, given the pressure that is carrying over from that last debate.

Samuel Popkin, professor of political science at UCSD, shares what Joe Biden will have to do in order to make up for Obama’s performance last week.

“The single most important thing for Joe to remember is that Paul Ryan is not the target and Paul Ryan’s budget is not the target; the target is Mitt Romney and Mitt Romney’s budget… if he goes directly at Ryan, Ryan can simply say that was my initial draft now the big guy is here and he has a better budget with new promises,” Popkin says.

Popkin also note’s how one of Biden’s strengths is his experience, which not only will give him an edge over Ryan but will help make up for the presentation factor that lost Obama so much ground in the last debate.

“Joe Biden has had four years of championing the president, he is very comfortable and used to that… this is a new role for Ryan he is going to have more trouble molding to that and being sure which line he should be following, I expect he will be okay but Biden will do with warmth and clear language what President Obama didn’t do at his debate speech. President Obama read much better than he looked,” says Popkin.

What Paul Ryan Must Do In The VP Debate

Popkin says, “He has to be honed in. The reason Romney put him on the ticket is because that was the best way to have Ryan interested in political power now, rather than purity now to take over the congressional leadership later, and he has to be willing to muddy his initial clear strong budget and not get stuck in the weeds of defending things that would make it harder for governor Romney. He has to basically sell out anything he stood for that is no longer valuable to Governor Romney.”

Given these factors, there are many things that VP candidates do to prepare for their 90 minutes of unfettered campaign face time. Four years ago, when Joe Biden was preparing for 2008’s vice presidential debate, former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm sat in as Alaska’s lightning rod governor Sarah Palin for some friendly sparring sessions.

Granholm says that in these debates, one tries to become as much like the opponent as possible, and get under the skin of the candidate in order to best prepare his/her responses.

“I’m no Tina Fey but I did try to become sort of a Palin-toligist… I looked at everything I could about her…in debate practice you really try to get under the skin of the candidate in whatever way you can, or bring out your worst fear about way they will portray themselves in the actual debate, so we tried," says Granholm. We tried to exploit the difference between then Senator Biden and then Senator Obama. He had to absorb and respond to the attacks on Obama’s position, which he wasn’t as prepared to do, but that wont be an issue tonight, because of course there is no daylight between them now."

The hardest part of any debate, according to Granholm, is to find a balance between responding to attacks on you and making attacks. The candidate has to be disciplined in order to make smart decisions about how to allocate the time.

“Somebody very disciplined is Paul Ryan,” says Granholm. “ Biden has to know that the discipline on Ryan’s part will cause some attacks that will make Biden want to chase the rabbit down the hole, and he has to know when to do it and when not to do it.”

As someone who knows Biden’s debating skills very well, Granholm says that what she would worry about for him is being able to deliver the message in the formal style of a debate. She remarks how he is very good at connecting with people, but that his challenge will be to maintain authenticity in the two-minute response of the debate format.

Looking Forward To The Next Presidential Debate

Granholm also projects what she expects President Obama is practicing for next week’s debate.

“He must not allow a misstatement to go unanswered. Leaving it unanswered means the 70-million people who watch will take it as true, so he has to respond… In the last debate I predicted Obama would lose because of all the presidential debates in the last six cycles that incumbent president has lost five out of six times in the first debate…this time in the second debate I predict he is going to win, because he is a competitive soul and he is not going to let that first debate define him,” she observes.

Weigh In

So will Joe Biden be able to make up for what Obama’s presentation lacked? Or will Paul Ryan carry the Romney momentum forward and continue raising his numbers in the polls?


Mark Barabak, Political Correspondent, Los Angeles Times

Samuel Popkin, professor of political science, UCSD; author of The Candidate: What it Takes To Win - and Hold - The White House (2012 Oxford)

Jennifer Granholm, former governor of Michigan (January 2003 - January 2011); tv host “The War Room with Jennifer Granholm” on Current TV weeknights at 7pm PT