WASHINGTON -- It's almost Biden Time, a more urgent campaign moment than he or anyone else could have imagined a few days ago.
After a political career that has lasted 42 years so far, the genial vice president and former senator faces the most critical task of his electoral life: helping his boss dig out of the avalanche that buried him in Denver.
At 69 years of age and heading towards the twilight of his time on the stage, Joe Biden on Thursday will confront Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who has been on Earth only six years longer (42) than the number of years Biden served as a U.S. senator from Delaware (36).
Simply put, the Obama-Biden team can't afford another weak, confused and defensive performance against the Republican ticket after the one the president turned in Wednesday in the West.
And further, Biden needs to do to Mitt Romney (and only incidentally to Ryan) what he did to Judge Robert Bork in 1987 when Bork was nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court.
The smiling Biden attacked with ruthless efficiency and, aided by a famous floor speech by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, he defeated President Ronald Reagan's nominee. It was ugly, but Biden won.
If former Romney was lying, shading the truth and changing positions (yet again) during the first debate -- which Democrats and neutral fact checkers say he was -- then Biden must begin holding the GOP to account in ways that President Barack Obama was unprepared, unwilling or unable to do.
That means that Biden not only has to take on Ryan, but more crucially, if by proxy, Romney.
He has to: rebut Romney's unanswered attacks, such as the notion that federal job-training programs are wastefully duplicative; call Romney out for his brazen effort to sound like a bipartisan moderate, after a year of industrial-strength sucking up to the Tea Party; tout accomplishments of the Obama-Biden administration in ways the president mysteriously failed to do; and better explain to voters why the next four years would be better in Democratic hands than they would be under the GOP.
Is Biden up to it?
No one knows what will happen Thursday, but in theory, yes.
For one, Biden is in excellent shape physically -- a combination of a healthy sense of vanity, a beloved second wife, and steely determination, which helped him overcome brain aneurysms and the deaths of family members. (His first wife and one of their children were killed in a car crash when he was 30.)
Second, he has been studying hard. Biden aides told me three weeks ago that he had at that point spent 60 hours on debate prep. Since Friday he has essentially gone to ground to prepare in depth for the 90-minute debate against Ryan, which will be held at picturesque Centre College in central Kentucky.
Third, he likes this kind of combat.
By his own occasional admission, Biden is not and was not an intellectual or academic superstar. He graduated 76th out of 85 students in his law school class at Syracuse University. He has at various times has been accused of, shall we say, generously lifting material from the work of others, including -- disastrously for his failed 1988 presidential campaign -- a passage of purple campaign prose from a leader of the British Labour Party.
However, what Biden lacks in academic chops he more than makes up for in street smarts; genetic political talent (his Secret Service code name is "Celtic," enough said); an eye for and an ability to earn the loyalty of brilliant, dedicated staffers; an instinct for the jugular; and a thirst for political combat.
Through two presidential campaigns and, more importantly, decades in the Senate, Biden accumulated brains around him, many of whom are advising him now. Chief among them is Ron Klain, his former VP chief of staff, and the man who almost -- but not quite -- saved Florida for Al Gore in 2000.
Klain and others have been drilling Biden, who is somewhat resistant to drilling but who loves a good fight that matters.
The chief evidence of that is admittedly old -- his 1987 fight against Robert Bork. Biden was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time. The key to victory was a brief prepared for him by his staff, which came to be called the "Biden Report." It portrayed the jurist in encyclopedic detail as an ideological extremist whose views rested dangerously outside the mainstream.
Democrats would argue that no such heavy lifting is required in Kentucky; just a simple list, clearly stated, of what Romney has said that is untrue and what the president's case really is.
If Biden can't begin making the case, the burden on Obama for the second presidential debate next week in New York will be that much greater.
And if Biden lets loose with one of his famous -- sometimes infamous -- gaffes, that, too will increase the burden on the president and support the GOP talking point that the Romney-Ryan ticket has a better sense of what will and will not work in the future.
Until now, being vice president has, for Biden, been mostly enjoyable, gratifying without requiring much exertion.
He is a key player, but mostly behind the scenes, acting as Obama's go-between with Congress, especially with old Senate buddies. He is respected for his real-world wisdom in a White House staffed with Ivy-blind Rhodes Scholars. At his annual press picnic, he gleefully hunts reporters with a water rifle as they vie for the honor of getting soaked. And in other venues, those same reporters hang on his every word (almost), hoping for a "Joe Moment" -- a gaffe that makes for weird and generally harmless headlines, and that sometimes (as with gay marriage) presages what the president is about to do.
But now, like a leathery ol' cowboy in "The Unforgiven," Biden on Thursday must stride into the sunlight to face a comparative kid.
Biden has to focus on Romney and Ryan. But he has to remember Robert Bork.
For Howard Fineman's full 2012 Countdown, click here.
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