Thursday night’s debate between Vice President Biden and GOP running mate Paul Ryan offers a delicious contrast in style, age, vision, temperament and ideological persuasion.
With that in mind, here are the big questions framing the tussle.
Mitt Romney’s dismantling of President Obama in their first presidential debate has reconfigured the race more dramatically than anyone predicted. A swath of new national polls shows a tied contest, and polls suggest Romney has also evened the score in important battleground states like Florida and Virginia.
Make no mistake: Obama needs a good headline to help blunt Romney’s momentum, and ironically, he turns to Biden for it. “Ironic” because Biden has produced so many “oops” headlines for Obama over the past four years that he’s an odd relief pitcher to turn to.
But Thursday night Biden gets a big chance to atone for those gaffes, to set things right, to save Obama — even if only for one night and one news cycle.
Can Ryan win?
Yes, but confident conservatives should beware and approach Biden with caution.
According to a 2008 Pew Research opinion poll, viewers thought Biden performed better in his vice-presidential debate than GOP running mate Sarah Palin, and they also thought Biden did better in his debate than Obama did in his first presidential debate. Biden struck viewers as presidential, knowledgeable and, perhaps most importantly, likable.
To wit: A CBS poll of unaffiliated voters found that 53 percent liked Biden more after hearing him debate, while just 5 percent had a more negative opinion. So Ryan is going up against an experienced veteran.
But that doesn’t mean Ryan’s awed or easily overwhelmed in the presence of power. In 2010, he joined Obama for a bipartisan healthcare summit and delivered a powerful, six-minute attack on the president’s healthcare proposal that quickly went viral and stoked Republicans’ hunger for the same kind of performance but on a different, bigger stage.
Can Biden turn this into a debate about Medicare?
When Romney picked Ryan, Medicare immediately became a big issue in the campaign, thanks to Ryan’s plans to reform the entitlement program. Instead of backing away from the fight, the Romney team embraced it, with Ryan frequently averring, “We want this debate. We need this debate. We will win this debate.” For a few weeks, it seemed like the ticket might be onto something, and polls showed an initial burst of enthusiasm for Ryan’s proposed Medicare reform.
But that edge has disappeared. The most recent CNN survey showed Obama leading Romney-Ryan on Medicare, 52 percent to 44, and ABC News put Obama up 4 points on the issue.
To be sure, those aren’t overwhelming advantages, but it’s certainly better territory for the president than the economy, and look for Biden to steer the conversation to that end.
The question is whether Ryan will take the bait or resist the urge to indulge Biden’s prodding.
Can Ryan keep up with Biden on foreign policy, and can Biden keep up with Ryan on the budget and deficit?
Biden has deep foreign-policy experience, having sat for over a decade on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and chaired it twice. Meanwhile, Ryan’s focused largely on domestic policy while serving in Congress, and has one of the swiftest and most alert minds on budgets, the debt and the deficit.
Biden will have to prove he can weather Ryan’s storm of numbers, while Ryan will have to prove he can weather an Arab Spring or two. Look for each to press the other into an uncomfortable corner.
Who will play against type?
Ryan and Biden are perfect stalking horses for bad stereotypes about their parties, which is, frankly, what might make the debate so good.
Biden often seems to be the emotional Democrat who won’t bow to the hard realities of numbers, while Ryan often comes across as the wonky Republican who won’t bow to the soft realities of the heart.
Of course, the truth is considerably more complex, but at the core, Biden’s strength is emotional while Ryan’s is numeric.
But the question for Thursday night isn’t who plays best from his relative position of strength but, instead, who branches out into his opponent’s territory more effectively.
Will Biden make a big gaffe?
After last week’s presidential debate, Obama’s campaign took some comfort in the fact that, for as bad as it had gone for their guy, the president hadn’t made a haunting gaffe.
Biden is another story. Over the years, he’s been caught making racially insensitive and vulgar comments, once claimed that Hillary Clinton would have been a better vice-presidential pick than himself and, most recently, created a headache for the Obama campaign after saying the middle class had been buried during the president’s first term.
The debate will last 90 minutes. That’s a lot of time for a stray word or sentence to drift from Biden’s mouth.
Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a member of staff at The Hill. Find his column, GOP Presidential Primary, on thehill.com