Vice President Joe Biden, a man with nearly four decades of experience in politics, has not been taking lightly his preparations for his debate against Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., holding practice sessions and perusing briefing books in recent months.
Now, in the wake of President Barack Obama's widely panned performance last week in his first debate against Mitt Romney, the stakes for Biden are suddenly higher than ever. In the Oct. 11 vice-presidential debate he must not only avoid making any gaffes but also try to puncture his Republican opponent's arguments on taxes, entitlement reform and deficit reduction, something Obama was criticized for failing to do last week.
The pressure on Ryan has risen as well. Romney greatly exceeded expectations, appearing both presidential and in command of the debate stage. Ryan, who has never before debated at the national level, must prove that he is potential presidential material — while also defending the numbers that Romney put forth last week, especially on tax cuts.
Both sides are offering sky-high predictions for the other team. "There's a lot on the line," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, a chief Romney-Ryan ally. "President Obama failed to defend his record and could not articulate a vision for the future. So I think that challenge now falls to Vice President Biden."
Bill Burton, former White House deputy press secretary and co-founder of the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, argued that the burden is actually on Ryan.
"Ryan is going to face pressure to explain some of the dishonest claims he and Romney have been making, especially on things like Medicare, taxes and the auto industry," he said.
One point on which both sides appear to agree is that Biden is likely to be more aggressive in his faceoff against Ryan than Obama was debating Romney.
Speaking with reporters last Thursday before a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, rally at which he sharply criticized both Romney and Ryan, Biden previewed the debate by noting that he's been "studying up on Congressman Ryan's positions on the issues."
"I just want to make sure that when I say these things, I don't have the congressman [say] — 'No no no, I don't have that position,' or, 'That's not the governor's position,' " Biden said. "So, it's mainly getting the factual predicates for everything that — not everything, but the key issues on which Governor Romney has spoken and Congressman Ryan has."
Ryan, for his part, said that he believes Biden will be an aggressive opponent. "I expect the vice president to come at me like a cannonball," Ryan told the conservative Weekly Standard Thursday night. "He'll be in full attack mode, and I don't think he'll let any inconvenient facts get in his way."
Both White House contenders have been deeply engaged in debate preparations even as they maintain busy schedules on the campaign trail. For Biden, that has meant squeezing in time for debate preparations while visiting with his family in Delaware, as he did one weekend earlier this month. For Ryan, it's meant practice sessions in Washington, as well as his hometown of Janesville, Wis.
Biden who kicks off an intensive "debate camp" this week in Wilmington, Del., so far has engaged in two mock debates with Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who is playing the role of Ryan in the vice president's practice sessions.
Ryan on Friday wrapped up a three-day debate camp in southwest Virginia; prior to that, he had held three mock debates with former U.S. solicitor general Ted Olson, who is playing the role of Biden. Kerry Healey, who served as Massachusetts's lieutenant governor when Romney was governor, has been playing the role of moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC.
The candidates are not only scrutinizing each other's past speeches and issue positions but also their recent appearances. After Biden's blistering critique of the GOP ticket in Iowa, Ryan studied a transcript of the event. Biden's preparation also has included reviewing video of Ryan interviews and speeches.
One Romney aide said that the presidential debate did little to change the substance of Ryan's debate preparations "except that he needs to be even more prepared for a really aggressive tone and tenor from the vice president."
"I think given the criticisms of the president for not attacking on the '47 percent' or on Bain Capital, I think we can expect some of that," said the aide, who was not authorized to speak publicly about Ryan's preparations.
An Obama campaign official said that like the president, Biden views the upcoming debate "as an opportunity to speak directly to the American people about what's at stake for the middle class in this election."
"Congressman Ryan, on the other hand, has a choice to make Thursday: either stand by the extreme positions he's been the face of for years — and that Governor Romney has fully embraced — like turning Medicare into a voucher program and cutting taxes for the wealthiest few at the expense of the middle class, or flat-out deny their existence as Governor Romney did in last week's debate," said the official, who like the Romney aide was not authorized to speak publicly about debate strategy.
As during Biden's faceoff four years ago against former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential nominee in 2008, there's also the matter of the age and stature gap between the two candidates. Biden is 69, has run for president twice and served in the Senate for 36 years. Ryan is 42, has served in the House for 14 years and will make his first appearance on the national debate stage on Thursday in Danville, Ky.
Both sides sought to downplay the importance of that gap ahead of the debate. Democrats noted that Biden succeeded in navigating it four years ago, while Republicans pointed out that Ryan has served on the Hill for seven terms.
"Congressman Ryan and Sen. Biden were colleagues on Capitol Hill for many years," said one Romney aide. "I know Congressman Ryan considers the vice president a friend."
In addition to Obama's debate performance, there's also the matter of two recent remarks by Biden on the trail - his statement on Tuesday that the middle class has been "buried for the last four years," and his comment Thursday that he and Obama would allow the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy to expire — which Republicans have seized in an effort to cast the vice president as an ineffective messenger.
"Joe Biden's kind of become the Joe Pesci of the presidential ticket," said Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who stumped last week on behalf of the GOP ticket in Colorado. "You never know what's going to come out of his mouth. This comment that he said earlier this week on burying the middle class — I don't think that's exactly the shovel-ready job that Barack Obama was thinking of — but the vice president's right. That's exactly what's happened."
Some Democrats dismiss the notion that the stakes are raised for Biden — and counter that the onus is on Ryan not only to defend Romney, but also to prove that he himself is ready for prime time.
"I think the pressure in my book is on Paul Ryan, because he's got to demonstrate that he has what it takes to be president of the United States," said Democratic strategist Doug Thornell. "We know he can work a calculator and a budget — not that the numbers add up — but there's a lot of other qualities that he hasn't demonstrated."
House Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam, R-Ill., another close ally of Ryan's, said that while his colleague had "led the House in a very able way . . . leading in a legislative body is one thing; leading with 60 million people looking at him is another."
"Who knows who's ever ready for that stage?" Roskam said. "I think that there's hopes on Paul Ryan. There's expectations on Joe Biden."