They argue that the big margins of two weeks ago were always destined to tighten, given everything that is known about these states from past campaigns. The debates, they say, accelerated a process that was likely to happen sometime in October.
But from their research, the race has begun to settle down. Romney is not continuing to gain ground. “Romney has consolidated some of the gains he was going to get anyway,” said White House senior adviser David Plouffe. “We weren’t going to win battlegrounds by 10 points.”
The campaigns aren’t playing the expectations game ahead of this debate as vigorously as they did before the first presidential debate. Biden is knowledgeable and an experienced debater. Republicans expect he will give Ryan a tough exchange. Ryan also is considered smart, substantive and authentic. Some Democrats regard him as a better communicator than Romney. They don’t anticipate he will stumble.
Ryan has several possible weaknesses. He knows the budget to such a level of detail that he could fall into wonk-talk if he’s not careful. What works on the House floor or in an inside-the-Beltway debate won’t necessarily work with a television audience of 50 million or more. As one Republican noted, Ryan has to resist being chairman of the House Budget Committee on Thursday night.
Nerves also could be an issue. Ryan has never debated on a stage this big. He has much at stake. Beyond this election, there is the question of his future as a national Republican leader — a possible presidential candidate in 2016 if Romney loses.
Biden’s potential weaknesses are well known. One is a propensity to be windy, although he was anything but that against Palin. He has a history of verbal gaffes, but mostly when he’s unscripted or lets his guard down, which shouldn’t be the case Thursday. He could appear condescending or patronizing to his younger rival. He could be too aggressive. He also must defend Obama’s record on the economy, which the president did not do effectively last week.
Ryan said this week that he expects Biden to be forceful on Thursday to make up the ground that Obama ceded to Romney last week. Biden will attempt to force Ryan to defend what the Obama campaign considers Romney’s dishonest performance in Denver.
The vice president’s attacks probably will focus on Ryan’s budget, which Romney has embraced only in part, and he’s likely to try to make Ryan the issue as much as Romney. Ryan’s challenge will be to make an appealing case for his worldview while making clear that Romney is the head of the ticket and running on his own platform.
The next presidential debate will be held Tuesday at Hofstra University in New York, but what happens Thursday in Kentucky is likely to have a big effect on how things look by the time Obama and Romney meet again.
For previous columns by Dan Balz, go to postpolitics.com.