- Barack Obama - Democrats (USA) - Joe Biden - Mitt Romney - Republicans (USA) - US elections 2012 - USA
Can Biden boost stumbling Obama at VP debate?
After President Barack Obama’s shaky debate performance last week allowed Mitt Romney to surge in the polls, Democrats are counting on Vice President Joe Biden to come out swinging in his debate against Republican VP nominee Paul Ryan.
US vice presidential debates generally provide more in the way of entertainment value than real impact on the state of the race.
But the face-off between the famously feisty and loquacious Vice President Joe Biden and Mitt Romney’s telegenic, staunchly conservative running mate, Congressman Paul Ryan, could be an exception to the rule.
The stakes and suspense surrounding the Biden/Ryan match-up, to take place in Kentucky on Thursday night (9pm Eastern time, 1am GMT), are indeed considerably heightened since President Barack Obama’s shaky debate performance last week all but erased his lead in polls.
With Romney’s team confident for the first time in weeks, and the Obama camp fretting that the president has endangered his re-election chances, the pressure is on Biden to help his boss regain the momentum he had in September.
To accomplish that mission, he will have to do what the president himself did not in the first debate: go on the attack.
“Obama’s poor showing in last week’s debate means Biden has to be aggressive in pointing out policy differences between the two parties,” said Darrell West, a political analyst at left-leaning think tank The Brookings Institution. “The vice president will not allow Ryan to reinvent himself the way Romney did in last week’s debate.”
Biden to aim for attacks, without gaffes
Biden will likely take the Republican vice presidential nominee to task over Romney’s controversial “47 percent” comment, his opposition to Obama’s auto industry bailout, and his proposal to reform the popular Medicare programme [government-subsidized healthcare for the elderly] by offering senior citizens vouchers for private insurance companies.
He may also press Ryan to clarify the Republican ticket's intentions on issues relating to women's reproductive health; on Wednesday, Romney said he had no plans to push "legislation with regards to abortion", sowing confusion and prompting the candidate's campaign to reassure conservatives that "Mitt Romney is proudly pro-life, and he will be a pro-life president".
And with last week’s report showing a surprising dip in the unemployment rate, Biden will argue that the president’s economic strategy has put the country on the right track – and that Romney and Ryan would take the US back to the Bush-era policies widely blamed for the crisis.
Holed up in a hotel over the last few days, Biden is reportedly trying to master his rival’s past positions and proclamations; he has been watching Ryan’s convention speech, his TV interviews, and reading “Young Guns”, a book Ryan co-wrote with other up-and-coming US conservatives.
If Ryan tries to portray himself as a moderate, like Romney was seen as doing in last week’s debate, Biden could pounce with what he will say is evidence to the contrary.
“[Ryan’s] vulnerability is past positions that are more extreme than those of the typical voter,” West offered. “Biden will try to make Ryan look like he’s outside the political mainstream.”
In 2008, Biden debated another fresh-faced Republican opponent – Sarah Palin – and was careful not to appear as if he were bullying a younger woman.
This time, the gloves may come off.
“I expect the vice president to come at me like a cannonball,” Ryan told conservative magazine The Weekly Standard. Biden is indeed reported to be rehearsing the kind of hard-hitting one-liners that Obama failed to produce during his debate.
But while he can be sharp-tongued, the 69-year-old Biden is also known for his warmth and “folksy manner” -- one of his greatest strengths, according to West. “He connects with average voters,” the analyst said.
On the other hand, Biden’s propensity for off-the-cuff commentary and improvised wisecracks has sometimes got him in trouble – as when he told an audience full of African-Americans in August that Romney and Ryan wanted to put them “back in chains” (interpreted by some as a clumsy reference to slavery).
“He has to be careful not to make a gaffe or say something that distracts from his central message,” West noted.
Ryan’s big moment
Ryan, a 42-year-old representative from Wisconsin, has had a substantial Congressional career (he was first elected in 1999), but little national exposure. A budget hawk known for his golden-boy aura and good looks, Ryan will “have to show he belongs on the same stage as Biden,” explained John Fortier, a right-leaning political scientist at Washington-based think tank Bipartisan Policy Center. “There will be some drama to see [him] in action for the first time.”
Ryan’s main goal will be to prevent Biden from reclaiming the upper hand from the Republican ticket. If he holds his own, Romney may be able to continue riding what looks like a comeback after several weeks of highly publicised missteps and disappointing poll numbers.
Ryan has reportedly spent several days studying footage of Biden going back to the 2008 Democratic primary debates. Pundits across the political spectrum are therefore expecting the Republican to show up prepared, and also to flaunt his much-noted fluency in fiscal policy. “Ryan is not very experienced in national discussions, but he is smart and articulate and good at explaining complex issues in a way voters can understand,” West said.
Ryan will likely hit Biden hard on the economy, citing statistics that point to a sluggish recovery and arguing that Americans should expect better – and can trust a seasoned businessman like Romney.
Foreign policy, on the other hand, is considered a challenge for him at this stage -- especially in comparison to Biden, who was formerly chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and is said to have been integral in helping Obama map out strategies for Iraq and Afghanistan.
Despite their dramatically different politics and nearly 30-year age difference, Ryan and Biden have some notable things in common. They are both practising Catholics (it is the first time in US history that Catholics figure on both presidential tickets). They are both frequently dispatched to win over white working-class voters who remain wary of the more refined-seeming, Ivy League-bred Romney and Obama. And they are both avowed fans of the Green Bay Packers, a Wisconsin professional football team.
Anyone expecting much in the way of bipartisan bonding or back-slapping on Thursday night, however, will likely want to change the channel.