With President Obama looking to an unpredictable and gaffe-prone Joseph R. Biden to get his campaign back on track in Thursday's debate, the pressure on the vice president couldn't be greater.
Vice presidential match-ups usually don't have the power to change the course of the election, but this year could be different. Mr. Biden is acutely aware that Mr. Obama's dismal performance in his first faceoff with Republican rival Mitt Romney largely erased Mr. Obama's lead in several key battleground states, ratcheting up the stakes for his performance Thursday night at Centre College in Danville, Ky.
As Mr. Obama's No. 2, Mr. Biden doesn't have the burden of looking presidential, so can bare some teeth and punch hard against Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Mr. Romney's running mate. But getting too loose and looking angry against Mr. Ryan, a budget expert 27 years his junior, could easily backfire on the vice president, leading him to veer off script and reminding viewers of Sen. John McCain's grumpy 2008 debate performance against Mr. Obama, who remained calm and collected.
With this in mind, Mr. Biden has been assiduously preparing for his prime-time clash with Mr. Ryan. Holed up for much of the week in a hotel in Wilmington, Del., the vice president has been scrutinizing videos of Mr. Ryan's speeches and interviews, and holding mock debates against Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat, who is playing Mr. Ryan in debate preparation, as well as David Axelrod, a senior adviser in the Obama campaign.
Mr. Biden's frequent gaffes on the campaign trail have given Republicans plenty of campaign fodder, but the vice president seemed keenly focused on trying to keep his tongue in check Thursday.
"I don't want to say anything in the debate that's not completely accurate," he told reporters late last week.
Though Mr. Biden has created a few headaches for Mr. Obama throughout the election, Mr. Biden is a seasoned debate veteran who has run for president twice and delivered a strong performance against then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in 2008.
Relatively untested, Mr. Ryan is more of a blank slate. His aides say he has participated in a debate only once — when he first ran for Congress 14 years ago. Mr. Ryan also has been hunkered down in debate preparation over the past week, spending days at a resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains 150 miles southwest of Washington, where he was joined by former Solicitor General Ted Olson, who played the role of Mr. Biden in mock debates.
Four years ago, Mr. Biden approached the debate against Mrs. Palin cautiously, careful not to get too rough with the newcomer to the national stage. But after Mr. Obama's lethargic showing last week, Mr. Biden is expected to come out swinging.
"I expect the vice president to come at me like a cannonball," Mr. Ryan told reporters earlier this week. "He'll be in full attack mode, and I don't think he'll let any inconvenient facts get in his way."
If what Mr. Biden has been saying on the campaign trail is any indication, he will likely try to force Mr. Ryan to defend Mr. Romney's proposals on taxes and spending — and seize any opportunity to tie Mr. Romney to Mr. Ryan's Medicare plan, which includes caps on future spending and a plan to partially privatize it.
Just last week, Mr. Biden and Mr. Ryan sparred over the Democrats' desire to let the Bush-era tax rates for households making $250,000 and up expire at the end of the year. Even though the call for a tax hike on top earners wasn't new, Mr. Biden's blunt language admitting that he and Mr. Obama want a $1 trillion tax increase gave Mr. Ryan an opportunity to go on the attack.
Campaigning in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Mr. Biden said Mr. Romney and other Republicans often say, "'Obama and Biden want to raise taxes by a trillion dollars.' Guess what? Yes, we do, in one regard: We want to let that trillion-dollar tax cut expire so the middle class doesn't have to bear the burden of all that money going to the super-wealthy. That's not a tax raise. That's called fairness where I come from."
Mr. Ryan pounced on the quote at a campaign stop in Virginia last Thursday.
"What we don't need is a trillion-dollar tax increase," he said. "What we don't need is a tax increase on our successful job creators that will cost us 700,000 jobs in just two years."
When Mr. Romney picked Mr. Ryan, Medicare became a major issue in the campaign, and Mr. Biden is likely to do everything he can to score points on the topic during the debate.
Polls have given Mr. Obama the edge when it comes to handling Medicare. The most recent CNN survey had Mr. Obama leading Romney-Ryan on Medicare, 53 percent to 44 percent, and ABC News had Mr. Obama up 4 points on the issue.
In early September, while campaigning in Mr. Ryan's home state of Wisconsin, Mr. Biden said the Romney-Ryan ticket would turn Medicare into "voucher-care."
"We are for Medicare. They are for voucher care," he said. "It's basic."
But Mr. Ryan has not tried to run away from the Medicare issue, memorably joined by his 78-year-old mother, Betty Douglas, when he delivered a speech on Medicare reform in The Villages, Fla., a large retirement community in mid-September.
During the address, he accused Mr. Obama of siphoning off hundreds of billions of dollars from Medicare to pay for his 2010 health care overhaul.
"Medicare should not be a piggy bank for Obamacare," he said, reassuring seniors that he is committed to protecting the Medicare guarantee for current seniors and for generations to come.
It's a line Mr. Romney used repeatedly during last week's debate against Mr. Obama, pointing out that Mr. Obama is responsible for shifting $716 billion out of Medicare to pay for his health care law.
But after the debate, Democrats said Mr. Ryan protected those cuts in his budget and fact-checkers have deemed the charge that Mr. Obama robbed Medicare of the amount as "mostly false" — a point Mr. Biden will undoubtedly try to hammer home Thursday night.
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