GOP’s move to downplay Ryan’s debate skills isn’t sticking in Ohio

Political campaigns typically work to lower expectations for their candidates ahead of major debates, and this week has been no exception as Vice President Biden and Republican rival Paul Ryan prepare to square off Thursday in Danville, Ky.

But the strategy hasn’t quite filtered down to some rank-and-file Republicans in Ohio, whose expectations for the Wisconsin congressman are sky-high.

“I think Ryan’s going to eat him alive,” said Darlene Johnson, 68, a retired teacher from Toledo who came to see Ryan speak Monday in an airport hanger here.

“He’s dynamic, he knows his facts, he’s young. I think he’s going to be very aggressive. . . . I think it’s going to be good for our team,” she said.

In interviews here, as Ryan closes out his schedule of public rallies before heading to Kentucky to meet Biden, Republican voters said they expect Ryan to downright demolish the vice president Thursday.

Biden’s reputation as a gaffe machine has helped convince Republicans he’ll be easy to embarrass. Also, the Ryan campaign has spent months selling its nominee as the party’s intellectual future, raising expectations about his abilities.

Hopes among the grass-roots campaigners were raised higher by presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s strong performance against President Obama last week. Romney’s showing was interpreted by supporters not as an off-night for the president, but as proof that the Democratic perspective is simply impossible to defend.

“I know Biden’s gonna get tore up,” said David Alcorn, 56, a bus mechanic from Fulton County, Ohio. “Biden doesn’t even know what state he’s in half the time. Everything he says he gets wrong. He’s just a goof.”

Before Ryan spoke here, Romney’s remarks on foreign policy at a Virginia event were piped in live on a video screen. The crowd of about 1,000 here gave Romney a standing ovation, then applauded again for Ryan as he offered a critique of Obama’s domestic and foreign leadership that reiterated some of the same points.

“The president is not offering the kind of spirited and principled leadership we need to create jobs here at home or to keep us safe,” Ryan said. He was sharp and focused in his remarks, and many here said they looked forward to seeing the same Thursday.

Any misstep by Biden could prove especially costly for the Democrats, coming on the heels of Obama’s widely panned debate performance. But there is danger in the cockiness many Romney supporters have about Ryan’s prospects. The congressman, 42, has tangled with Democrats on the House floor, but he has never appeared in a nationally televised debate watched by millions.

And he’ll be going up against a 36-year veteran of the Senate, who participated in multiple debates during his two runs for the presidency. If Biden appears passionate and sure-footed, Democrats will surely use it to try to build a narrative of a comeback.

All of that has prompted top Republicans to try to tamp down the expectations for Ryan.

“Paul is a smart guy. He has committed his life to understanding the problems of our economy,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “I think Paul is going to do a great job, but I think it’s important to understand [that Biden is] a gifted orator [and] very good at rhetoric.”

But don’t tell that to Tom Newcomb, 63, a retired General Motors engineer from Defiance, Ohio, who is a Ryan fan.

“I hope that Joe Biden is shown to be the idiot he is,” Newcomb said. “I think Paul Ryan’s the man to do it.”

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