Who could have guessed that President Barack Obama would suddenly be depending on Vice President Joe Biden’s communications skills to get his re-election campaign back on track? That’s right, the same Joe Biden who has an uncanny ability to say the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But that’s the way it is as Centre College in Danville plays host Thursday to Campaign 2012’s next big event: the only vice presidential debate between Biden and his Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
Centre was already feeling good about having been chosen to host the veep debate for the second time in a dozen years. Now, thanks to Obama’s feeble performance last Wednesday in his first debate with Republican nominee Mitt Romney, even more attention will be focused on Danville.
“The interest and the contacts have really picked up in the past few days,” said Centre spokesman Michael Strysick.
More than 3,200 media credentials have been issued for the debate, including 600 to international journalists and broadcast technicians from 40 countries.
Credentialing closed a couple of weeks ago, but interest was already strong because of Ryan’s selection for the GOP ticket. It raised hopes that this would be more than the usual vice presidential debate — a sparring match between two people whose election is of no real consequence unless something happens to the president.
When Biden faced off four years ago in St. Louis against Sarah Palin, much of the anticipation focused on whether she would be able to convey a coherent thought.
But Ryan is the anti-Palin: smart and articulate, with a strong command of policy and data. He is one of conservatism’s rising intellectuals. Among many GOP faithful, especially Tea Party types, Ryan is more popular and respected than Romney.
During 14 years in the House, Ryan has become a leader in developing and proposing conservative fiscal policies. He is most famous for his draconian budget plan that would cut $5 trillion in government spending over a decade.
While Biden is an experienced legislator who campaigns with a man-of-the-people folksiness, he has never been considered a thought leader. House Speaker John Boehner predicted this summer that the Ryan-Biden debate could be “the greatest show on the planet.”
“With these two on the same stage,” Village Voice political blogger John Surico wrote last week, “we have a situation that is akin to a Thanksgiving Dinner where the dorky cousin is trying to outsmart the drunken uncle.”
But if Biden can avoid his gift of gaffe, he has a chance do well on Centre’s stage. That is because televised debates are more about performance than policy. They favor showmen over wonks, which is a big reason that Romney came off looking so much better than Obama did last Wednesday night.
Obama didn’t make mistakes; he just missed opportunities. He rambled while Romney was crisp. He was passive while Romney was assertive. Romney’s sudden shift from right-wing rhetoric to moderate reason seemed to throw Obama off balance. Romney looked straight into the camera when he spoke; Obama’s eyes were too often focused elsewhere.
The single vice presidential debate is particularly well-suited for sharp elbows. The debaters often can get away with saying meaner things than the top guys on the ticket. Both Ryan and Biden are likely to spend more time going after the presidential candidate who isn’t there than the guy across the stage.
Debates tend to favor challengers, because incumbents have a record to defend. But, in this case, Biden has an opportunity to make hay by attacking Ryan’s radical proposals for reshaping the federal budget and Medicare.
Ryan is coming to Danville to attack the Obama administration’s record, but also to try to sell his and Romney’s ideas.
Biden’s challenge will be to defend the administration’s record and explain why Romney and Ryan are wrong. He must show more passion and energy than Obama did last week. But here’s the question: Can Biden go on the offensive without being offensive?
Kentucky’s moment in the campaign spotlight should be a good show.