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Veep Debate: Ready to Rumble?

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With just four short weeks to go until the election, the 2012 race for the White House has tightened up considerably. Romney's performance in the first presidential debate has given him a solid boost, for now, and Obama is slipping in a number of very key states. Romney has still not "sealed the deal" by any stretch of the imagination, but then again, neither has Obama -- even though a week ago, that's where it looked like he was heading.

Barring an unforeseen "October Surprise" of some sort, we've got three big political events remaining. The vice-presidential debate happens tomorrow night, and there are still two presidential debates on the calendar. Days before the election, one more monthly unemployment number will be released, but the impact this will have may be minor, since history shows that the closer any political event is to voting day, the less impact it tends to have (for better or for worse).

Before tomorrow night, we'll be hearing a whole lot of "vice-presidential debates haven't ever mattered," mostly uttered by the same people who told us, a week ago, that "presidential debates rarely change anything." Since these nattering nabobs of negativism (to use a famous vice-presidential phrase) were wrong before, one has to at least consider that they may be wrong again. Tomorrow's debate may matter a great deal to the voters. The first presidential debate was watched by a jaw-dropping record number of viewers (upwards of 70 million), and it's all anyone's been talking about since in the political world (even the Big Bird stories were tied in to the debate). So perhaps quite a few folks will tune in tomorrow night as well, and perhaps Joe Biden and Paul Ryan may prove to move public opinion this time around.

Handicapping Biden and Ryan is almost impossible. Both men have solid records in one sense, and are on shaky ground in another. Starting with Ryan, he is a very good speaker in contentious question-and-answer settings. The proof of this is his many, many appearances on cable news shows before being named Mitt Romney's running mate. Ryan is always sure of himself, and always has a bevy of numbers to toss in the air. He's a fast-talker, too. Not in the pejorative sense (make your own mind up about that), but in the literal sense -- he speaks so quickly he can uncork a whole lot of ideas in a very short space of time. The quickness of his verbiage actually reaches the extremely high bar set by the fictional characters on the West Wing television show (who were always rushing through hallways, talking a mile a minute, it seemed). Crucially for Ryan, he has the ability of taking very complex concepts, seeing them through his own ideological lens, and presenting the result as the most eminently reasonable way of looking at things. Bill Clinton had the same magic touch.

Joe Biden, on the other hand, has had actual debating experience. He's good in debates in an entirely different way. He not only presents his facts, but does so with emotion -- a key ingredient missing from Obama's last debate. Joe also has plenty of real-world political experience both in foreign policy and in the ways of Washington. He's been around the block quite a few times, to put it another way. Also in his favor in debate settings, Biden has a wonderful way of pointing out when the other side is just flat-out being ridiculous. He even had to tone this down in the last debate he took part in, so as not to appear to be "beating up" on Sarah Palin too much. This time, he'll have no such restraint. Finally, Biden relates to his audience well, especially those further down the economic scale. Again, like Clinton, he has the shining ability to feel people's pain.

Both participants have negatives, too. Ryan has never been on a national debate stage, for instance. I would bet this isn't going to be much of an impediment, though, because of all that time he's spent on cable television practicing the modern debating style rather than the formal, traditional style. Look for Ryan to attempt to talk all over the moderator and over Biden, because that's what plays well on cable. It'll appear aggressive, and the only question is whether it'll appear too aggressive to viewers at home. Since almost nobody said Romney appeared too aggressive last week, Ryan will probably feel pretty unconstrained here. Ryan's other big drawback -- one that seems to be coming to light more often -- is that he is pretty short-tempered with people who disagree with him and question his pronouncements. Look for Biden to really try to get under Ryan's skin, in the hopes that Ryan will fly off the handle in some unguarded moment. The last big drawback Ryan's got is the handcuffs the Romney team has placed upon him. Paul Ryan has a few budget bills to his name, but he's only the number two guy on the ticket, and has had to squelch a lot of his own bright ideas because Romney won't fully back them. He's had to say things like "but that's my budget plan you're talking about, not Mitt Romney's," and this could be a big handicap tomorrow night. If Biden hammers Ryan on Ryan's own budget, Ryan will be reduced to using this line over and over again, which may come off as rather weak.

Joe Biden's negatives are... well, tune in to just about any late night comedy show to see. Sigh. Joe Biden has (like it or not) been cast as the comic relief in the Obama administration. Joe occasionally says things inelegantly, to put it nicely. To put it not-so-nicely, the entire punditary world will be on high "gaffe alert" tomorrow night, just salivating over the possibility that Biden will say something they can cut down to a five-second laugh line. Biden's other problem is that at times he can seem almost too emotional. He gets so caught up in being indignant that what he is actually talking about tends to get lost. Paul Ryan will doubtlessly be looking to exploit both of these perceived weaknesses tomorrow night. Biden can also slip into a slightly-annoying speaking trait, where he gets rather repetitive of certain words and phrases (notably, starting his answers with "Look..."). Now, I realize that me saying this of Biden is entering pot/kettle territory (...so to speak... to put it another way... one might say... in other words... etc., etc.), but the real question is whether the voters tune such things out or not.

Tomorrow night's debate should prove to be a fascinating one. It may get downright brutal at times. Both Ryan and Biden are fully capable of going for the jugular, and the Obama team knows it is in a slump. Joe Biden has relished the traditional campaign role of "attack dog" so far this year, and Paul Ryan is equally capable of baring his teeth and getting in the fray as well. Both men will be trying mightily to provoke the other to the point of saying something they really shouldn't, which should certainly make for some interesting television. Biden is more experienced at this sort of thing, and he's got a lot of real world experience to draw upon, although there likely will be no opening for a "You're no Jack Kennedy" type of line for Biden to showcase Ryan's inexperience. Ryan's a lot better than Dan Quayle ever was, in other words.

Tomorrow will be an important night. In normal times, of course, "veep" debates aren't that big a deal. After last week's presidential debate -- and Romney's subsequent surge in the polls -- this time around the stakes are a lot higher than normal. Viewership may set a record (although likely not as high as the record set last Wednesday). Of course, this is how the media loves to frame these events, but this time it may actually be true. The media also loves underdogs, and at this point, the Obama/Biden team occupies this role.

The only thing I'd bet on in both the lead-up and aftermath of tomorrow night's debate is that the media focus will be on feistiness and snarkiness. Look for endless boxing ring metaphors to be deployed. The veep debate coverage will be downright pugilistic in nature this year:

"Who will be the creep and who will put us to sleep? Will Republicans sweep or will Democrats reap? Will one campaign be thrown on the trash heap? Tune in Thursday... Thursday... Thursday! It's the 2012 Battle For Veep! Let's get ready to RU-UMM-MMM-BLE!!!"

 

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