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VP Debate 2012: Paul Ryan, Joe Biden And What To Watch For

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VP DEBATE 2012
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WASHINGTON -- Thursday night, all of your political reporters and merry meme-makers will be focusing their energy and attention on the second of the Commission on Presidential Debates' four debates, only this one will be the one without the "presidential" part. That's right, we got vice presidential contenders up in this piece -- current Veep Joe Biden and V.P. hopeful Rep. Paul Ryan.

If you cast your mind back through the history of vice presidential debates, you probably remember the key moments. Lloyd Bentsen getting in a good burn on Dan Quayle (that every hack politico has attempted to recreate, pathetically). John Edwards managing to be the creepiest guy in a room that contained Dick Cheney (prophetic, now that we think about it). Adm. James Stockdale trying to charm the audience by pretending to have no coping skills. What we're trying to say, is that typically, the battle of veeps is a low-stakes affair.

Not so this time, apparently:

Vice presidential debates typically matter as much as vice presidential picks -- which is to say not a lot -- but a convergence of factors is raising the stakes on this week’s faceoff between Paul Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden.

As Dan Amira points out, every single vice presidential debate that ever was has been sold as the one that really matters, but this year, the people who always say that are saying it even louder and more emphatically than ever. Why? Because after last week's debate, in which Barack Obama -- according to Andrew Sullivan, anyway -- crapped the bed as Mitt Romney become the dazzling, Good Will Hunting of radically altering his own policy positions, this battle of wits is being billed as the must-have turning point for Democrats if they hope to restore some of their ticket's lost standing.

Which means: everything comes down to Joe Biden, just as Nostradamus said it would.

THE VENUE AND TOPIC AREA: The vice presidential debate will take place at the Norton Center for the Arts at Centre College in Danville, Ky. -- the same college where Joe Lieberman and Dick Cheney battled in what the debate organizers have called "The Thrill In The Ville." There, Biden and Ryan will face a grab bag of questions on both foreign and domestic policy. It's wide open, but hopefully we can, at the very least, nip this "Big Bird" stuff in the bud.

THE MODERATOR: Running the show this evening will be ABC News' Martha Raddatz, in her first ever debate moderation gig at this level of competition. (As Michael Calderone reported, Raddatz "once moderated a Ted Kennedy debate during her Boston reporting days.") Her lack of moderation experience, however, is more than made up for in her breadth of knowledge and the crisp intelligence she's displayed as ABC News' chief foreign correspondent -- a position she's had since November of 2008. Frankly, it can be argued that having walked the foreign policy beat for the entirety of the past four years, she might have been a better fit for the all-foreign policy presidential debate on Oct. 22.

Raddatz has come under fire -- well, that's too strong a term ... let's just say she was briefly the subject of a session of frantic Daily Caller arm-waving, accusing her in advance of "media bias." However, as Erik Wemple pointed out, the Daily Caller didn't actually mine any juicy nuggets of "bias" from her body of work as a journalist. Rather, it has alleged this all from the fact that Barack Obama was a guest of her ex-husband's at her first wedding, and that he may have even danced. Which is a savage indictment, of ... something. Anyway, we are pretty sure Raddatz isn't sweating this.

THE DEBATE FORMAT: Seeing as how last week's grand experiment of only asking six questions and allowing the candidates to blather on and on unmoderated ended up being something of a bust, you'll be glad to know that the vice presidential debate is a return to the typical 90-minute structure -- nine questions, two-minute responses, and the remainder of the 10 minutes being given over as discussion time. But with so many domestic policy topics left untouched in the first presidential debate, and foreign policy encroaching at the veep debate, chances are viewers are going to be left wanting more.

THE DEBATERS: Paul Ryan and Joe Biden, as debate opponents, offer some interesting points of comparison and contrast. Both of these guys are born gabbers -- they live to talk shop, and they love to converse with just about anyone who'll listen. Both are veterans of the legislature, and so you're likely to see a sort of fellowship between the two men that isn't going to manifest itself during the debates between Obama and Romney. Biden and Ryan are essentially members of the same fraternity, and they'll likely demonstrate a baseline level of respect for one another. (Were it not for the election, frankly, you can easily imagine these two getting along with one another.)

But one of the interesting things about these two men in particular going into a debate, is that each tends to buck his party's preferred manner of talking to Americans. Most Democrats shy away from using stark, moral tones in their case-making, but Biden's not one of them -- when he discusses issues, he invests them with emotion, sometimes at the expense of nuance. Ryan, on the other hand, prefers a long wonky stroll in the weeds, to an emotional appeal. Or at least he used to -- before his last Fox News Sunday appearance, we never imagined Ryan wouldn't make time to talk math, but chances are, the Romney campaign has got him on a leash.

THE PRE-GAME: Which reminds us -- the popular conventional wisdom holds that it's Biden that should be kept on a leash, because, after all, he is Gaffe Gafferson, the mayor of Gaffe Town, where they manufacture gaffer tape, right? Who can forget that time Biden went off the reservation and caused Obama to have to come out in favor of marriage equality ahead of his strictly calibrated schedule? That was a tragic gaffe, according to clueless Beltway reporters. All of which is to say that the expectations, as far as Biden is concerned, could not possibly be lower, because by now, everyone in the media treats a successful Biden public appearance as if it were an encounter with the God particle.

But beyond expectations, there are also needs. And seeing as how last week's setback in the first debate turned Obama's supporters into the characters from the "Oresteia" within 48 hours, they will want Biden to do enough to restore their faith in the ticket. The temptation, of course, in debating Ryan, is to prosecute the case against his own unpopular policy prescriptives. But Biden will need to make his running mate's case in the debate, and Romney has, critically, not entirely signed onto Ryan's roadmap. If Biden tries to go in for the kill on Ryan, he could ultimately leave Romney unscathed.

Ryan's challenge is a little different. He's already won over the conservative base and is the darling of the Beltway media -- a pretty rare combination of merit badges. Now, he has to get a passing grade from middle-America and independent voters. To do that, he'll want to stick to the script, and avoid being -- to use Charles Pierce's famous descriptor -- the "Zombie-Eyed Granny Starver" that brought a torrent of boos the last time he delivered a speech at the AARP. But if Biden isn't pressing that case, no problem, right? Well, it all depends on how long Ryan gets to talking -- as Ana Marie Cox points out, "If Biden does exactly what Obama did in the last debate, and just lets Ryan motor on, the chances are all the greater that Ryan will say what he actually believes -– so much of which is heroically unpopular with American voters -– and with Mitt Romney."

WHAT'S AT STAKE: We take pride in our ability to be able to stick our finger in the wind and get a sense of where the political media would dearly love to bend the 2012 narrative next. And we get the sense that given half a chance, everyone would love to write the "Biden rights the listing ship" story. (Biden, having yoked Obama to his will on marriage equality, sets the stage for a sequel.) If Biden re-energizes Democrats, without going overboard, he could bring everyone back off the ledge.

If that doesn't seem that fair to Ryan, think on this: Even if he turns in the debate performance of his life, parries all thrusts, and shreds all arguments, all anyone will give him credit for is beating the walking gaffe machine. But if there isn't a sweet reward waiting for Ryan, the good news is that Biden's successes could have a short shelf-life -- and Obama will have to match his running mate's performance when he takes Romney on for their debate next Tuesday. So the downside for Ryan is quite small -- so long as he sticks to the script and avoids reminding everyone of his own unpopular policy prerogatives.

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