Conservatives have been licking their chops in anticipation of a debate between Paul Ryan and Joe Biden ever since Ryan was announced as the Republican vice presidential candidate. After GOP nominee Mitt Romney's strong performance in the first presidential debate, the pressure is on Ryan to maintain the momentum, and many on the right don't think that will be difficult.
Confidence in Ryan’s intellect is matched only by a sense that the gaffe-prone vice president can’t be taken seriously. "Ryan is going to be a great, articulate spokesperson out there. He is going to wipe up the floor with Biden in the debates," Republican strategist Ed Rollins told Fox News this summer. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has said of Biden: “I think the vice president of the United States has become a laugh line on late-night television.”
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Biden’s reputation took another hit this past week, when he told a campaign crowd that the middle class has been “buried” during the four years of President Obama’s leadership. Former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, a Romney surrogate, hopped on the phone with reporters to declare, “Vice President Biden finally got something right.” The latest CNN/ORC International poll found that among likely voters, 55 percent think Ryan is likely to do a better job in the debate than Biden. Only 39 percent gave Biden the advantage.
But Biden’s no fool, and the sky-high expectations for Ryan could set him up for failure. The House Budget Commmittee chairman from Wisconsin may be smart, but he struggles to give policy specifics when pressed by journalists. Biden may make clumsy remarks, but he’s a seasoned debater, with a gut connection to the middle-class voters who’d be hit by budget cuts Ryan has proposed.
The vice president is “a really knowledgeable debater,” said former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, host of The War Room on Current TV and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s stand-in during Biden’s 2008 debate prep.
Both Ryan and Biden will need to suppress their inner wonks and avoid speaking “in the acronyms of Washington,” Granholm said. “On the vice president’s side, the benefit for him is he connects with real people better than anybody,” she said. In the first presidential debate, both Romney and Obama had a tendency to slide into policy arcana rather than speaking directly to voters.
There’s a buzz around the vice presidential debate on Thursday in Kentucky because the two candidates know their policy, said Ted Kaufman, Biden’s chief of staff for 19 years. In particular, there’s a sense among Republicans “that maybe Governor Romney hasn’t been the best messenger for what they believe in,” Kaufman added.
Ryan’s reputation as an “intellectual policy wonk” carries real vulnerabilities, said Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. If Biden “can catch him in an error, he’ll be able to dislodge the dominant narrative about Ryan,” she said.
For a self-described “numbers guy,” Ryan can be oddly hazy on specifics, analysts noted. In an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace on Sunday, Ryan wouldn’t say how much the GOP ticket’s proposed tax cuts would cost, just that they’d be paid for by eliminating loopholes in the tax code. “You haven’t given me the math,” Wallace prodded.
“Well, I don’t have the ti—It would take me too long to give you all of the math,” Ryan said. “But let me say it this way: You can lower tax rates by 20 percent across the board by closing loopholes and still have preferences for the middle class.”
“What intellectual policy wonks are supposed to be able to do is clearly communicate policy alternatives,” Jamieson said.
The Obama campaign has been equally hazy on many of their policy specifics, Jamieson said. But Biden isn’t expected to be as adept at explaining policy as Ryan.
Biden isn’t, as Giuliani insisted, “not very smart.” The vice president is a seasoned veteran of the Senate and the president’s right-hand-man. Heading into the 2008 vice presidential debate, the assumption was that Biden would need to rein in his smarts and be patient with Palin. Biden told reporters on Thursday that he's been reading up on Ryan's positions and is looking forward to the debate. "I don't want to say anything in the debate that's not completely accurate," Biden said.