Since 1976, there have been eight televised face-offs between vice presidential nominees. The ninth will come Thursday, when Vice President Biden debates Republican Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) in Danville, Ky.
By now, both parties have worked out tactics for this odd ritual. They require the barbed wit of an insult comedian and the humility of the hind legs in a two-man horse costume.
Candidates are told: Talk up your running mate. Zing your opponent. But avoid letting your career or your policy ideas become the focus. On the biggest night of your political life, it’s not about you.
On Thursday, the stakes will be unusually high, and the job of playing second banana especially tough. Biden spent 36 years in the Senate. Ryan crafted a plan for remaking the entire government.
Now, these proud, successful men will have to insist — convincingly — that they’d rather talk about somebody else.
“Whatever you stood for, you stand for the team” now, said Samuel Popkin, a professor at the University of California at San Diego who has helped coach Democrats in debates. Popkin said the task might be especially touchy for Ryan, because Romney has said he would not adopt Ryan’s famous budget plan in full.
“You need his goal in life to be power now, not power later,” Popkin said. “The only way I can see you do that is to get Ryan to say, ‘Romney’s budget is better than what I started with.’ ”
In his column, The Post’s Dan Balz wrote that this debate’s stakes are higher than usual for vice presidents, coming in a tight race with big recent shifts in momentum between the Romney and Obama campaigns:
“After Romney’s lopsided victory over President Obama in Denver last week, the exchange will arrive at a fluid and potentially pivotal moment in the campaign.
“For the Obama team, Thursday will offer an opportunity to short-circuit the advances Romney has made since the first presidential debate. For the GOP, Ryan will have a chance to piggyback on Romney’s performance and solidify the gains their ticket has made in recent days.
“The stakes are also higher than usual because the participants have a standing beyond their roles as running mates. They are real players, not potted plants or a sideshow to the main event.
“Biden is vice president and therefore fully accountable for what has gone right and wrong on Obama’s watch. He is a central player in the administration who has not shirked from offering the president unvarnished advice. He also speaks with the credibility of someone who has been in public life for four decades, with wide experience in foreign and domestic policy.