High stakes for 'wild card' Biden in Thursday vice presidential debate

President Obama, whose rise to the White House was powered by his sparkling oratory, is looking to his infamously gaffe-prone deputy to put his campaign back on track this week.

Vice President Biden is preparing for his Thursday evening clash with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) with intensity, keenly aware that Obama’s dismal showing in the first presidential debate has boosted GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and raised the stakes for the Democratic ticket.  

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In recent days, aides say the vice president has scrutinized video of Ryan's speeches and interviews, studying them the way an NFL team would examine tapes of its opposition in the run-up to Game Day.

The vice president has also read Young Guns, the book Ryan co-wrote with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

To date, Biden has had three mock debates, with his most recent session on Sunday. He will have several more dress rehearsals in advance of the real encounter in Danville, Ky., aides say.


Until then, Biden will be holed up for much of the week in a Wilmington, Del. hotel — the same one where he prepared for his face-off with Sarah Palin four years ago.  

In his prep sessions, Biden is joined by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who is playing Ryan, and Obama senior strategist David Axelrod, as well as longtime Biden confidants adviser Mike Donilon, Ted Kaufman, his former chief of staff in the Senate, and Ron Klain, his former chief of staff at the White House.

In an interview with The Hill on Monday, Kaufman said the debate sessions are “going well.”

“He’s really focused and he’s working hard,” said Kaufman, who replaced Biden in the Senate in 2009 before retiring the following year.

The new, post-Denver importance of the vice presidential debate has an extra piquancy because, in the past, Obama and his aides have not exactly gone out of their way to hide their impatience with the vice president’s tendency to veer off script. 

The day after he was inaugurated, Obama’s displeasure was evident when Biden made a crack at the expense of Chief Justice John Roberts, who had mangled the oath of office on the steps of the Capitol. 

Earlier this year, Obama aides were near-apoplectic when Biden unilaterally declared his support for same-sex marriage, forcing the president’s own hand on the issue. 

In mid-August, the campaign had to deal with the fallout when Biden told an ethnically mixed audience in Virginia that the Republicans would, if elected, “put y’all back in chains.”

But after Obama’s showing in Denver, the president’s team is, for once, reliant on Biden to repair a misstep by the boss.

“It’s a little bit of a twist,” said Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “The great speech giver from 2008 is now looking to someone who has been problematic in terms of public oratory to save him — or at least to reverse the narrative.”

“The Obama campaign recognizes that it has to come out of the gate charging and winning the second of this series of four debates,” said Ralph Begleiter, director of the Center for Political Communication at the University of Delaware, where Biden is an alumnus. “There is some pressure on the vice president to perform successfully.”

But Begleiter and others note that the gaffe-prone caricature of Biden has come to obscure his considerable strengths. 

A number of sources who spoke to The Hill highlighted, independently of one another, his taste for political combat and capacity to connect with voters at a visceral level.

“Especially after Obama’s performance, there is going to be a lot of pressure on him to be tough,” Zelizer said. “I assume he has been given a green light to really go after Ryan.”

Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who played Palin during Biden’s debate prep four years ago, said the vice president would be only too keen to serve as an attack dog. 

"He seems to seize that role with gusto," she told The Hill. “He can take off the gloves and go after the differences between the two tickets.” 

Granholm labeled Biden a “scrappy street fighter” and added that, while Ryan is certainly “competitive,” Biden is up for the challenge.

“He’s not a guy who gets nervous about this stuff,” she said. “He’s totally game.”

Even Biden foes noted that his strengths sometimes go underappreciated — something that might help him on Thursday, if expectations for his performance remain relatively modest.

“Joe reads people well,” said Delaware businessman and Republican Ray Clatworthy, who tried and failed twice, in 1996 and 2002, to oust Biden from his Senate seat.

“He empathizes with them. He always seems to have a little something in his history that exactly matches what a certain interest group might have.”

At the same time, however, Clatworthy suggested that Obama would be wise not to invest too much hope in Biden. 

Describing the vice president as “a wild card,” he said: “Joe can be very, very good or very, very bad. I wouldn’t want to be in a foxhole with Joe Biden. He’s too unpredictable.”

Those concerns are no doubt already being felt in the Obama camp.

The most widely acknowledged danger is that one inartful Biden remark could become the chief talking point after the debate, negating an otherwise solid performance.

Some also worry that the ever-passionate Biden might try too hard to counterbalance Obama’s startling passivity in Denver, and come across as excessively heated.

It is a possibility that has already provided grist for the mill for sketch writers on Saturday Night Live:

"Is there anything more exciting than Joe Biden thinking it's up to him to get the lead back? It's Tivo time!” Seth Meyers announced as part of his “Weekend Update” sketch on the weekend.

“There's like a 50 percent chance he's gonna come out of the next debate with his shirt off. He's probably covering himself with animal fat right now to make himself harder to grab."

Granholm has no fears, comically exaggerated or otherwise. But even she acknowledged that “sparks” are likely to fly at the Biden-Ryan bout.

“I think they’re both going to be really aggressive,” she said. “The scalpers should be making lots of money on this one.”