More likely than not, most people likely won’t remember anything the candidates say during Thursday night’s vice presidential debate. However, this year, the showdown between Vice President Joe Biden and his Republican challenger, Paul Ryan, could be unusually important -- and it could set the stage for the final weeks of the 2012 presidential election.
Mitt Romney’s widely-lauded performance during the first presidential debate in Denver has resulted in a polling jump that, so far, has remained steady. For the first time since becoming the Republican nominee, Romney is actually beating President Barack Obama in some national polls, changing the general narrative of the campaign from one where the president was all but guaranteed to win in November to one where even some Democrats are questioning whether Obama has the kind of unwavering leadership necessary to keep the White House for a second term.
If Ryan, like Romney, is hailed as the undeniable winner on Thursday night, that narrative will continue for at least another week. Waves of stories will report that the Democratic ticket, once again, failed to live up to the expectations of their base -- at least, until Obama and Romney meet again on Oct. 16.
With all of that in mind, here are five things to watch for during Thursday’s debate:
Biden getting tough on policy. One of the main criticism’s of President Obama’s performance in Denver was the fact that he did not force Romney -- or even really ask him to -- explain just how his policy proposals could feasibly be implemented (think of Romney adamantly insisting that he would cut the federal deficit without raising taxes on the middle class, but never actually specifying what spending he would cut to do so).
David Axelrod, Obama's chief political strategist, said on Thursday that Biden’s primary job in the debate will be to “pin down” Ryan on the Republican ticket’s policy specifics. In particular, Axelrod told CBS News that Ryan will face direct questions about the Republican tax plan, noting that in a recent interview Ryan deflected a similar inquiry by saying he “didn’t have the time” to go into the math of the plan.
The so-called ‘gaffe machine.’ Everyone knows the vice president sometimes has a casual -- even loose -- way with words. Biden often lets his own enthusiasm for the campaign trail spin into the butt of a joke -- i.e., his comment that the GOP is keeping the middle class “in chains,” or the unforgettable photo of him appearing to hold a female biker on his lap.
Republican surrogates are sure to be on major gaffe-patrol on Thursday. If Biden delivers a disappointing performance, that could be spun as yet another example of the Obama-Biden campaign’s incompetence.
Ryan’s inexperience. That may seem like a strange thing to watch for, but the 42-year-old congressman is one of the youngest people ever to hold a place on the national ticket. Ryan has never run for a statewide office -- meaning he has likely never faced a debate stage like the one he will encounter on Thursday. Meanwhile, the 69-year-old Biden has been a national figure since the late 1970s. As someone who not once, but twice, ran for president in his own right, Biden probably has a better idea of what he is walking into.
The Ryan Budget. The Wisconsin congressman’s authorship of the austere GOP House budget gave him the credibility he needed to be on the national stage. However, what was once considered to be one of his biggest successes (even though it never became law) leaves him open to potentially destructive criticism from Biden. Explaining the intricacies of the budget proposal -- which includes major cuts to social programs that primarily aid lower income and middle-class families, and which restructures the federal Medicare program for seniors -- may not go over well for a ticket that has already been criticized for its perceived inability to empathize with struggling Americans.
Wonkiness. Ryan’s reputation as a straight-talking numbers guy is why he was embraced by the Republican leadership. But, as one Ryan advisor recently told the National Review, the GOP candidate is explicitly trying to tone that down in advance of his debate because he “doesn’t want to be the guy talking about CBO baselines.”
That strategy could, potentially, take away from the qualities that made him such an effective advocate for conservative policy in the first place. After all, it’s his knowledge of policy -- and subsequently, his ability to predict and then deflect (by talking numbers) criticism from the left -- that made him an invaluable member of the party.
On that note, it would be wrong to underestimate Biden. He knows how policy works; he spent more than 30 years entrenched in the U.S. Senate. Dozens of pieces of legislation he sponsored have become law. In comparison, during Ryan's 13 years in congress, only two of his bills have passed.