8 Questions

Dan Balz on what to expect
in the presidential debates

Question 7: What should we expect from the debate between Vice President Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan?

Vice presidential debates are generally about the presidential candidates. The job of the running mates, as Joel Goldstein put it, is to echo the themes of the campaign, attack the opposing presidential candidate and defend the top of the ticket. Along the way, they need to establish their own credentials.

But sometimes these debates are about the running mates as much as the presidential candidates and that’s the case this year. Next week’s debate between Vice President Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) may be as eagerly anticipated as Biden’s debate with Sarah Palin four years ago.

Sloan, of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, offered as pithy prediction of the debate: “Verbal shileaghlies at six feet, last solid crack wins.”

Ryan comes to the stage with a history of his own as a major intellectual force in the conservative movement. His budgetary blueprint was an issue in the campaign even before he was added to the ticket and it will be an issue in the vice presidential debate.

Biden has been in elective office for almost four decades and there’s little he hasn’t encountered. But Ryan knows the budget and fiscal issues in ways Biden may not. “I think it will be the first time in history that the Republican candidate will be favored,” said Daron Shaw, a professor at the University of Texas.

But Ryan has never been on a stage this big. Biden has four decades of experience and should have the advantage on foreign policy. He handled himself well against Palin. Will he do the same against Ryan?

The key will be when Biden goes after Ryan’s budget. Said Democratic strategist Kiki McLean: “Folks will be watching Ryan and looking for any daylight between him and Romney or any effort to protect his own image over Romney’s.”

Still, as entertaining as it may be, only a total meltdown by one of the two may affect the race. “Even the 1988 debate when [Lloyd] Bentsen knocked out [Dan] Quayle, it did little to change the dynamics,” said John Geer, chairman of the political science department at Vanderbilt University.