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.’ ”
By tradition, the vice presidential debates have been like the vice presidency itself: well-publicized but largely inconsequential.
At the polling firm Gallup, researchers recently analyzed survey results before and after every running-mate debate since 1976 (except 1980, when there was no debate).
“We really don’t see any statistical change in any of them,” said Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor in chief.
But this year, both parties hope, could mean much more.
Democrats hope that Biden can make up for Obama’s tentative, defensive performance in the first presidential debate last week. That would mean attacking Ryan over Romney’s plans for taxes, Medicare and the budget, and pointing out where Romney’s ideas conflict with Ryan’s.
Republicans, by contrast, think the numbers-focused Ryan will extend his party’s win streak to two. Ryan began his debate preparations a month ago, holding three mock debates, with former U.S. solicitor general Ted Olson playing Biden. He then spent three days last week huddled in “debate camp” in southwest Virginia.
Neither of these men, however, has ever faced a challenger like the other.
Biden played two roles in the previous presidential campaign cycle: In the Democratic debates, he was the loose, bomb-throwing long shot. During the general-election season, he faced not a wonk but a political neophyte, then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), in the vice presidential debate. Biden’s job was to be polite; repeat talking points about Palin’s running mate, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.); and stay out of the way. He did.