Vice President Joe Biden has his work cut out for him on Thursday.
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Historically, vice presidential debates have done little to change the course of a presidential campaign, but the faceoff between Biden and Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan could be an exception.
“There is a lot more attention on this debate after what happened with the first presidential debate,” says Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “Republicans want Ryan to sustain the recovery of the Romney candidacy and Democrats want Biden to help Obama recover…this debate could go against history.”
President Barack Obama was enjoying a sizeable lead against GOP Presidential nominee Mitt Romney going into last week’s first presidential debate, but Romney’s strong performance narrowed the gap and has laid the pressure on Biden to change the momentum.
“Romney’s performance shifted the news and made it more positive for his campaign,” says John Sides, associate professor in the Department of Political Science at George Washington University. “Obama needs to get several days of better headlines than what he has been getting recently and a good performance from Biden will ultimately stop the Romney momentum and reassure prominent Democrats.”
Experts expect the debate to be more combative and aggressive -- an element many say was missing from Obama last week.
“There is no doubt that Biden will be in a much more aggressive attack mode than Obama,” says Mark Brewer, associate professor of political science at the University of Maine. ”Obama had the burden of being the president in that debate, people don’t want to see attack mode from the president. Americans are more likely to put up with that from the vice president, Biden will not be as hand-cuffed as Obama.”
Biden’s performance in 2008 against former Alaska Governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was considered to be solid, and the consensus was that he won that debate.
“You never want to underestimate a seasoned politician like Biden in an event like this,” says Zelizer. He pointed to when Vice President Dick Cheney took on Democratic vice president candidate John Edwards and “undercut that ticket pretty heavily.”
“Edwards was a young charismatic up-and-coming Democrat who was media savvy and Cheney was an inside-the-Beltway kind of guy and he did a job on Edwards. He made him look inexperienced and that he couldn’t be trusted with the presidency.”
While Biden, 69, often makes headlines with his speech blunders -- for instance his latest comment that the middle class has been “buried” for the last four years -- it’s hard to ignore his extensive resume. Biden has been in Washington for 32 years in the Senate and is an experienced debater.
“With all his gaffes and mistakes in the media, he’s also effective politician, he can attack,” says Zelizer. “He is a tough Democrat. There are times he can be even more effective than the polls, he can change the headlines and give Obama that bounce he needs.”
Biden vs. Ryan: Who Has What Advantage?
As the former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden might have the upper hand when it comes to issues relating to foreign policy. “When it comes to foreign policy, he has a level of knowledge and substance that can be quite effective and that is an area that Ryan doesn’t have much experience in,” says Zelizer.
Biden is also good at playing up his humble roots stemming from his hometown of Scranton, Pa., to connect with the middle class, a group both campaigns are heavily targeting.
“I would expect to see a pretty sharp disagreement from the camps on whose interest they really have in their hearts,” says Sides.
Ryan has the advantage of his party having the momentum walking into the debate. “He is being passed the baton,” says Sides. “With this all-of-the-sudden tight race, he just needs to hold on to the baton and keep running. It’s unlikely that he himself is going to add significantly to Romney’s poling momentum, but they still need that favorable news coverage.”
Ryan, 42, is no stranger to Capitol Hill. He’s been in Congress for close to 13 years and crafted a budget blueprint this year to tackle the growing deficit.
“Ryan clearly is at an advantage when talking about the nuts and bolts of domestic policy and about fiscal and budget policy,” says Brewer. “On the other hand, that advantage could also be disadvantage since some of his views have been controversial, even to the point that Governor Romney has distanced the campaign from them.”
With 27 years between them, the age card could come into play Thursday night. “It could work for and against each candidate, it will depend on how they work it,” says Brewer. He says Biden can relate his age to experience while questioning Ryan’s age as being too young to run a country.
On the other hand, he warns that if Biden looks lethargic or stammers on responses, he could end up looking “past his prime.”
One topic that is sure to play a major role in the debate is Medicare. Ryan has been advocating privatizing Medicare. The Democrats have been attacking the plan, asserting it will force older Americans to pay more in health costs.
Ryan has been very public and aggressive with his plan, says Brewer, which will make it hard for him to separate himself from the proposal. “He can assert that the changes won’t touch people of a certain age and reassure retirees that Medicare is going to be there for them.”
Debate’s Impact Today, Tomorrow
Each candidate’s performance will have a more personal impact on their career that extends beyond November’s election.
While experts agree that the potential for a vice presidential debate to significantly impact election results is slim, they agree that the participants' performance will carry with them and either propel or hinder their careers.
“The debates themselves have a bigger impact on future political opportunities,” says Brewer. He pointed to the 1988 vice presidential debate between Democratic candidate Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and Republican candidate Sen. Dan Quayle as an example of how a bad performance can have a lasting effect. During the debate, Quayle mentioned he had nearly as much congressional experience as John F. Kennedy, to which Bentsen quipped, “… Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
“Quayle was an upcoming star in the GOP party and did poorly in the debate and after this performance and a couple other things, he was viewed as a laughing stock and hasn’t been on the political scene since,” says Brewer.
With both Ryan and Biden seen as potential presidential candidates in 2016, they want to receive high marks tonight.
“If Ryan looks bad in the national spotlight it will force people to re-evaluate him as being ready to lead the country,” says Zelizer. “We saw it happen to Robert Dole in 1976. If Biden plays up to the worst impressions people have of him, people will become more skeptical that he can run.”