Dems hope Biden can blunt Romney momentum post-debate

Democratic strategists are eyeing the forthcoming debate between Vice President Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) with a mix of hope and nervousness in the wake of President Obama’s widely panned performance in his leadoff encounter with Mitt Romney Wednesday night.

On the plus side, some Democrats feel that a strong performance from Biden next Thursday could turn the page on the president’s near-debacle in Denver.

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But they also worry that Biden’s legendary capacity to state his views in an inartful fashion could backfire. And of course, there is the possibility that the vice-presidential clash will be an insignificant sideshow, which would mean that Obama might have to wait until the second presidential debate on Oct. 16 before righting his ship.

Across the Democratic ranks, the reverberations from the president’s poor showing were clearly still being felt Thursday.

“Joe Biden needs to go back to the effective organizing principle of the Obama campaign, which was at some level not adhered to last night,” said Chris Lehane, a strategist who worked in the Clinton White House and on Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign.

“He needs to be the aggressor, keep the foot on the gas,” Lehane added, noting that the economic fundamentals were so problematic, from Team Obama’s perspective, that “it’s like you’re going up a hill. The moment you take your foot off the gas pedal, gravity is going to start pulling you down in the opposite direction.”

Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist who also writes for The Hill, argued that the main potential of the vice-presidential debate was to “blunt the momentum for Romney.”

She added, “The challenge Romney has had all along has been to get a couple of good days, a good week; to keep it going. He bought himself some time at the debate. If they can keep that going, the potential significance of the vice-presidential debate would be to blunt that.”

Both Finney and Lehane noted that plenty of events could intervene between now and the Biden-Ryan clash. It is not a given that the Republican candidate will be able to ride the wave of his strong debate performance all the way until then.

This reality was underlined Thursday, when The Wall Street Journal revealed that the Obama campaign would report its strongest monthly fundraising performance of this election cycle in September, with a total of more than $150 million gushing into its coffers.

On the campaign trail in Iowa on Thursday, Biden protested that Obama “did well” in the presidential debate. He said that Obama was “presidential” during the encounter, and added that “we have two more debates coming up — or the president does — and I feel very good about it.”

Obama campaign aides told The Hill that Biden’s preparations for his own debate have included two mock-debate sessions, one as recently as last week, with Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) playing the role of Ryan.

In Iowa, Biden told the news media that his preparations had been “going well.”

He continued, “What I’ve been doing mostly, quite frankly, is studying up on Congressman Ryan’s positions on the issues. And Gov. Romney has embraced [them], at least everything I can see.”

The comment seemed to presage a widely predicted line of attack in the vice-presidential debate, one in which, as Boston University communications professor Tobe Berkovitz said, Biden would “hold up Ryan’s stances on the issues as extreme and out of touch with the middle class.”

The Obama camp confirmed as much to The Hill late Thursday night.

"While the vice president can continue to tout his work with President Obama's delivering for the middle class, this debate puts Ryan in an awkward spot since Romney spent the entire debate last night lying about his agenda and his support for the Ryan budget," an Obama campaign official said. "On Thursday, Ryan will either be forced to continue Romney's cover-up of the extreme policies he's been the face of for years or stand by them as his boss keeps masking the truth — talk about a no-win situation."

But Berkovitz cautioned that even a strong showing for Biden was likely to have little real impact on the outcome of the presidential race.

He noted that the most devastating exchange in any debate in recent memory — Sen. Lloyd Bentsen’s (D-Texas) withering 1988 putdown of George H.W. Bush’s running mate, then-Sen. Dan Quayle (R-Ind.), as “no Jack Kennedy” — did absolutely nothing to prevent the Democratic ticket headed by Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis from getting crushed on Election Day.

A similar note was sounded by Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf.

“The VP debate is not that important,” he said. “As long as neither candidate makes a major gaffe, it will be a non-event.”

Republican consultant Dan Judy said of the Biden-Ryan clash, “It will be entertaining, but I don’t think it is likely to change voters’ minds.”

And unlike the Democratic strategists, that would suit Judy just fine.

“The president isn’t going to really have a chance to get his footing back until that second debate with Gov. Romney. He has never really found himself in that position in any campaign he has run,” Judy said. “It is going to be fascinating to see if he has the resilience to deal with it.”