DANVILLE, Ky. -– Henry Ford once said, “History is bunk.” He could have been talking about this presidential election.

Historical number-crunchers said Mitt Romney was toast; he isn’t. They said President Barack Obama couldn’t win with an unemployment rate above 7 percent; he can. And they said vice presidential debates don’t mean anything; this one surely does.

The 90-minute clash at Centre College here tonight is a pivotal moment in the 2012 campaign for tactical, strategic, philosophical and even generational reasons.

Romney is coming on like a freight train after besting the president in Denver last week. It is up to 69-year-old Vice President Joe Biden to slow that momentum in his confrontation with 42-year-old Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the widow-peaked intellectual ingénue of the libertarian Tea Party movement in the GOP.

Biden must look past Ryan to demand specifics from the GOP ticket –- and particularly the super-salesman Romney -– about how the challengers would cut taxes and still balance the budget; how they would reform Medicare and Social Security without breaking the social contract with the elderly and the poor; and how they would make the world safer by relying on threats of force rather than attempting a conversation among equals.

Beyond the specifics, Biden and Ryan will offer clashing views at the heart of their respective traditions -– traditions in which they are more steeped and to which they are more deeply wedded than their ticket mates.

If the Democrats are to convince voters about the wisdom of an enduring, ameliorative and economically stimulative government, it is up to Biden to begin that profound task here tonight.

It’s up to Ryan to make the case that free-market individualism can work for all.

These are the right men to do it.

They are their parties in pure form: Biden the devotee of traditional Democratic social welfare activism by the state; Ryan a disciple of Ayn Rand’s virtue-of-selfishness, post-Word War II libertarianism.

As a side note -– not an insignificant one -– Ryan and Biden represent conflicting strands of American Catholicism, and are the first two Catholics to face each other in a national political debate.

Biden, who is pro-choice and pro-gay marriage, represents the social-welfare good-works traditions of the church. Ryan, ardently pro-life, anti-gay marriage and skeptical of government, represents the conservative, almost evangelical faith tradition.

On a generational level, this confrontation will feature the widest age disparity between national candidates in modern times: 27 years.

Democrats tonight desperately need a much more effective Joe than the one who showed up here at Centre College 12 years ago.

If you think that vice presidential debates don’t matter, you don’t know the history made here in 2000. The last time there was a veep debate here, the Democrats’ candidate, centrist neo-con Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, spent much of his time agreeing with the GOP’s Dick Cheney, letting Cheney and his running mate, the underqualified George W. Bush, off the hook.

The event felt more like high tea at a Manhattan private club than a battle for the soul of America in a state famous for its feuds.

There was little if any partisan edge to Lieberman’s case, and the lack of it hurt his own running mate, Vice President Al Gore.

As the world later learned, Lieberman and Cheney were on the same page about Iraq and what would come to be called the “global war on terror.” Their shared worldview might have been a reason why their “debate” ended up being so lame and so tame.

The Lieberman Laydown was a subtle but crucial lost opportunity in an election that ended up turning on 537 votes in Florida -– a state in which some heated Lieberman antagonism to the GOP ticket might have made all the difference. Not surprisingly, Lieberman later left the Democratic Party.

One thing is certain about tonight’s debate: The Dems can’t afford a Lieberman Laydown. Just the opposite. They need a Biden Blowout.

A week after Obama failed to materialize in Denver, Romney has surged to the lead in the race for the White House. He's narrowly ahead in the popularity horse race. Electoral College projections, which still have the president ahead, are closing quickly.

Tonight, Biden must block that GOP momentum in two ways: by giving the detailed, focused responses the president failed provide in Denver; and by demanding -- repeatedly if necessary -– policy specifics from an evasive Romney-Ryan ticket.

Expect Ryan to make the generational case as he defends his proposals for spending and entitlement cuts. The theory: younger generations, including his own, won’t be able to afford Medicare and Social Security unless they are turned into private-sector-based voucher programs, and other entitlements such as Medicaid need to be capped and turned over to the states.

Biden’s challenge is to not sound like a defender of an ancient regime, but as the partner of a forward-looking president who wants to strengthen those programs as part of government’s unshakable commitment to sharing the blessings and burdens of America.

The vice president will demand specifics. If he doesn’t get them, he will have to highlight that fact. If he does, he will have to deconstruct them.

Both men have been preparing hard for this moment, which, history aside, really matters.

For Howard Fineman's full 2012 Countdown, click here.

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