By Justin Sink - 10/10/12 09:00 AM EDT
Republicans believe a strong performance by Paul Ryan at Thursday’s vice presidential debate could keep the reeling Obama campaign from regaining its footing.
The party is riding high after a series of new polls showed a dramatic swing in Mitt Romney’s favor following his victory over President Obama in last week’s presidential debate. Now some Republicans are salivating over the prospect of their energetic young star delivering another body blow to Team Obama.
Campaign aides say he also met sporadically in previous weeks with former Solicitor General Ted Olson, who is serving as Vice President Biden’s stand-in.
The stakes are the largest yet in Ryan’s meteoric political career. In 2008, 69.9 million Americans watched Biden’s showdown with then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin — more than three times the number who watched Ryan’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.
Publicly, the Romney campaign has downplayed the Wisconsin lawmaker’s chances, noting repeatedly that Biden is a veteran of multiple presidential races and, in Ryan’s own words, will come “flying at us.”
They argue that the vice president has participated in 18 presidential or vice presidential debates over his career, while Ryan has not stepped up to the podium for a formal debate since his first run for Congress.
“Joe Biden is as experienced a debater as anyone in national politics, and he has a deep resume in domestic policy and foreign affairs,” said Romney spokesman Brendan Buck. “This is Congressman Ryan’s first time on this big stage, so we’re taking preparation seriously. After the president’s performance last week, we know Joe Biden will be coming at us like a cannonball.”
And while the Romney campaign says the vice president has proven formidable and gaffe-free in big moments — pointing to his stirring Democratic National Convention address as the most recent evidence — there is some hope among Republicans that Biden, sensing the pressure of the moment, will overstep.
“Ryan’s challenge is staying at 30,000 feet without getting into the weeds on budgetary minutiae with Joe Biden likely to come out swinging,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “But if there is a way for Ryan to pull that out of Biden — so he becomes too negative while Ryan continues to be positive and provide solutions — he’ll end up doing really well.”
But Biden is preparing studiously too, huddling with senior adviser David Axelrod in Delaware for four days of debate prep. The former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to have an advantage on foreign policy, and has proven time and again that he can turn on the blue-collar charm when necessary.
“I know that Vice President Biden is anxious and ready to do this,” Obama adviser Robert Gibbs told NBC News.
Democrats say they see Ryan as a formidable challenge, noting the Wisconsin lawmaker has extensive experience debating on the House floor. Biden called on the man who knows that best, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) — the ranking Democratic member on the Budget Committee — as a sparring partner in his debate prep.
Lydia Spottswood, the Wisconsin Democrat who was defeated by Ryan in his 1998 House race, says it would be a mistake to underestimate the congressman’s oratorical abilities.
Spottswood told The Hill on Tuesday that during her showdown with Ryan — possibly his only formal debate — he proved repeatedly elusive.
“He talks in platitudes, and not specifics. So if you’re trying to nail him down on details, he’ll rotate back to general principles,” Spottswood said. “He is always trying to wiggle out from his own manifesto, or to say people misunderstand what he’s saying.”
Spottswood added that the marginalization of moderator Jim Lehrer by Romney during last week’s debate “was straight out of debating Paul Ryan,” and added that Ryan would often filibuster challenges to his previously stated positions by playing policy wonk — something she called his “Wizard of Oz routine.” But the Wisconsin Democrat said most of all, Biden should be wary of what she called Ryan’s “Orwellian” slipperiness.
“He makes stuff up when he doesn’t even have to — that’s what I experienced when he was debating,” Spottswood said. “When you would try to call him out on it, say the Department of Labor said, ‘X,’ he would say he didn’t believe those figures and just keep saying what he wants to say.”
On Thursday night, the woman tasked with pressing both candidates will be ABC News’s Martha Raddatz, who was selected as the moderator of the debate.
According to the Commission on Presidential Debates, the contest will cover both foreign and domestic topics and be divided into nine 10-minute segments. As with the first presidential debate, candidates will be given two minutes each to respond, with a broader discussion then opening up on each topic.
On Tuesday afternoon, Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom took to MSNBC to dismiss suggestions that the moderator’s performance in the last debate had aided his candidate, saying Romney and Ryan had “facts and the issues” on their side.
“The pressure is on Joe Biden to live up to his reputation this week as a policy expert and as a skilled debater,” he said.