5 things to watch for in the vice presidential debate

October 11, 2012

The "Thrill in the 'Ville" -- aka the vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan -- gets underway this evening in Danville, Ky.


The debate you've already seen: We take a mashup look back on what Joe Biden and Paul Ryan have already said about their campaign platforms and running mates. For more on their debating styles, watch these debate prep lessons from the Post’s Karen Tumulty.

But, what's a political junkie to do between now and the 9 p.m. eastern start time?  Why, check out the Fix's viewer's guide to the proceedings, of course.

Five of our thoughts on what to watch for are below. Have your own keys to tonight's debate? The comments section is open for business.

* The expectations game: Unlike last week's debate, where large majorities of people thought beforehand that President Obama would wipe the floor with Mitt Romney (that SO didn't happen), the expectations are much less tilted toward one candidate for this debate. In a Pew poll released Wednesday, 40 percent of registered voters said they thought Ryan would do a better job while 34 percent thought Biden would. One thing that could work in Ryan's favor, however, is that he is viewed more favorably than Biden in the Pew survey -- meaning that he could get some benefit-of-the-doubt points from people watching at home.

* Stakes is High: Regular Fix readers -- that's everyone, right? -- know that we have long  been skeptical of the effect that vice presidential picks have on voters' decision-making process. It would follow logically then that a debate between the two vice presidential candidates would be almost entirely inconsequential -- and historical Gallup polling shows just that. But context matters in politics, and the context of this debate is of a re-energized Republican party and a panicky Democratic party following Romney's debate victory last week. If Ryan is able to score a clear win over Biden, that momentum will only build. If Biden stomps Ryan, the momentum built by Romney will fade somewhat. If the debate is a draw or close to it, which is the most likely outcome, the status quo -- slight continued momentum for Romney -- will reign. (And, yes, at the top of this item we made a De La Soul -- best hip hop group of the 1990s -- reference that no more than 50 people get.)

* Blood on the floor: The 2008 vice presidential debate between Biden and Sarah Palin was decidedly friendly. Biden didn't want to look like he was taking gratuitous shots at the already-maligned Palin, and the former Alaska governor was mostly just trying to get through the proceedings without any major slip-ups. But that was a major anomaly in the history of vice presidential debates. Remember that vice presidential picks are chosen -- at least in part -- for their willingness to be attack dogs. So when the two nominees share a debate stage, fireworks usually ensue. Who could forget Lloyd Bentsen's "You're no Jack Kennedy" line? Or Dick Cheney's dismissive attitude toward John Edwards in 2004? (Just in case you could forget those moments, we've have a post that details them here.)  Combine that history with the fact that both Biden and Ryan have shown a willingness to mix it up, and the likely outcome is a debate full of attacks and counterattacks.

* The fog of 2016: At the moment, both Biden and Ryan are perfectly content to serve as the "guy next to the guy." But that won't always be the case. Biden insiders insist that a 2016 presidential bid for the former Delaware senator remains a very real possibility, and there's no one in Republican circles who thinks that Ryan won't run for president in his own right -- either in 2016 if Romney loses or later if Romney wins. While neither man will mention his future political ambitions in the 90-minute set-to, 2016 (and beyond) will be a subtext for every political operative -- and most political reporters -- watching the proceedings. Biden needs to prove that he can go gaffe-free, while Ryan has to demonstrate that he is more than just the wonk-in-chief. Think of it as a tryout of sorts -- with tens of millions of people watching.

* The Ryan wonk out: Most of the pre-debate coverage has and will continue to focus on Biden. (Our two cents: Biden always has been and will again be a very solid debater; it's one of the reasons he caught Obama's eye as a potential VP.) But, in our mind, it's Ryan who has more to prove. Ryan has never -- repeat, never -- been on a debate stage this (symbolically) big before. And, Ryan's great strength is his reputation as a numbers and policy geek -- both great things in a public servant but less great things in a political debater. If Ryan goes too far down a wonky rabbit hole -- we wonder what one of those might look like -- he could find himself fighting from behind against the much more experienced Biden. There's no doubt that the brunt of Ryan's debate prep has focused on  talking less like the chairman of the House Budget Committee and more like an average person, but the Wisconsin congressman is a hard-wired policy nerd. Subsuming that part of his personality will be a major challenge.

Obama says fundamentals of his campaign remain strong: Obama sat down with ABC News on Wednesday, saying he had a "bad night" at the debate last week but that his campaign remains strong.

“Gov. Romney had a good night. I had a bad night. It’s not the first time I’ve had a bad night,” Obama told Diane Sawyer. “But I think what’s important is the fundamentals of what this race is about haven’t changed.”

Obama added: “If you have a bad game you just move on. You look forward to the next one.”

This is Obama recognizing that his supporters are a little dejected. Words are great, but a great debate from Biden would cure more ills.

American Commitment targets Brown, Kaine on coal: The conservative group American Commitment is launching a $400,000 radio ad buy in the Ohio and Virginia Senate races, the group tells The Fix.

The ads cast Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) and former Democratic National Committee chairman Tim Kaine as unfriendly to the coal industry.

“It’s hard to believe President Obama and Sherrod Brown would want to close coals mines and power plants leading to higher energy costs and more job losses,” says the narrator of the anti-Brown spot. The Virginia ad makes a similar argument.

Fixbits:

Ryan says he and Romney have been consistent on abortion.

Obama says he was "too polite" at the debate last week.

A University of Northern Florida poll in that state shows Obama at 49 percent and Romney at 45 percent.

Automated pollster Survey USA shows Ohio at Obama 45, Romney 44.

Bill Clinton mocks Romney.

The State Department says security was up to snuff at the consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Sarah Palin says she's still not ready to rule out a future presidential run.

Sen. Scott Brown's (R-Mass.) Twitter account briefly hails Holly Petraeus's work in the consumer protection office, but then his campaign deletes the tweet. Turns out Petraeus, David Petraeus's wife, was appointed by Brown's opponent, Elizabeth Warren (D).

Brown and Warren debated last night. Here's FixSean's recap.

At an Arizona Senate debate last night, Rep. Jeff Flake (R) said he wouldn't sign any more pledges. Flake is a current signer of the Americans for Tax Reform no-new-taxes pledge.

A new ad from national Democrats hits Connecticut GOP Senate candidate Linda McMahon on Medicare and Social Security.

A Wisconsin GOP state lawmaker is drawing heat for passing along something his father taught him: "Some girls rape easy." Democrats are noting that Ryan endorsed the lawmaker.

Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) and opponent Richard Tisei (R) rumble in a debate Wednesday.

Must-reads:

"Goodbye, Mr. Scissorhands: Romney Recaptures Centrist Image" -- Mike Murphy, Time

"Obama's Ohio Silver Lining" -- Major Garrett, National Journal

"Romney shifts to more moderate stances on taxes, immigration, health care, education" -- Karen Tumulty, Washington Post

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Sean Sullivan | October 10, 2012