WASHINGTON—Until President Barack Obama’s weak debate performance last week, Joe Biden’s job in the sole vice presidential debate was to hold his own with his opponent, Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan, and avoid a misstep that could knock the campaign off stride.
With the campaign already off stride and needing to land some blows, Biden now finds his role elevated after months of low-profile campaigning.
“He’ll make sure that we set the record straight,” said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, an Obama campaign co-chairman.
For running mates, the vice presidential debate is one of just two spotlight moments, along with the convention acceptance speech. Otherwise, the candidates tend to attract wide attention only for off-message moments of the sort Biden has produced on occasion this year.
So Biden’s preparation for Thursday’s meeting has been months in the making. Even before Ryan’s selection this summer, Biden was studying detailed briefing materials on Romney’s issue positions.
“It’s like you write a 400-page book and memorize it,” one aide said this summer.
After Ryan was tapped in August, Biden began studying videos of his speeches and interviews to become more familiar with his speaking style and to anticipate possible flashpoints. The vice president also told reporters he was closely studying Ryan’s own policy positions, because “I don’t want to say anything in the debate that’s not completely accurate.”
Since Friday, Biden has been off the campaign trail, returning to his home in Delaware and holding mock debates at a Wilmington hotel. Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Ryan’s counterpart on the House budget committee, is standing in as the opposition player.
Underscoring the debate’s importance, top campaign strategist David Axelrod and senior White House counselor David Plouffe have joined longtime Biden aides Ted Kaufman and Mike Donilon in preparing Biden. Ron Klain, Biden’s communication director for his first two years in national office, is also participating.
Aides deny that Obama’s low-key showing has put new pressure on Biden and say the mood is light. The vice president had planned to host his team for dinner at his home Wednesday after their final sessions.
Thursday marks Biden’s second high-profile debate, after his debut in 2008 with Sarah Palin. The Alaska governor’s status as the GOP’s first female nominee reinforced the need for a traditional approach on Biden’s part. Lest he seem to be badgering a woman, Biden targeted the rival party’s presidential nominee, not his counterpart on the stage.
Jennifer Granholm, then the governor of Michigan, served as Palin’s stand-in for three days of practice with Biden. She said they held morning strategy sessions to discuss potential questions and answers before an afternoon mock debate with 90 minutes of uninterrupted Q&A to simulate the ultimate encounter.
It paid off: instant polls showed that a majority of viewers felt Biden had won.
Plouffe credited him for staying “relentlessly on message.”
“He never took Palin’s bait and never engaged with her directly — he kept his focus squarely on Obama and McCain and their differences in agenda and leadership,” Plouffe, the Obama 2008 campaign manager, recalled in his 2010 account of the race, “The Audacity to Win.”
For Biden, debates play on the dual strength and weakness of his political persona: an outspokenness that strikes some as authentic and others as overly loquacious. He had only a bit part in the Democratic primary debates in 2008, losing speaking time to candidates Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards, but he produced some of the most memorable lines.
When moderator Brian Williams quoted a Los Angeles Times editorial calling him a “gaffe machine,” and questioned whether he had the discipline to lead on the world stage, Biden brought down the house with a one-word retort: “Yes.”
At another debate, he turned the focus away from Democratic infighting to focus on the then-GOP frontrunner. “There’s only three things he mentions in a sentence — a noun, a verb and 9/11.”
Given the campaign’s need for an aggressive turn, a similar approach to Ryan may be in the works. Granholm suggested Ryan’s popularity in the GOP gives Biden a chance to drive a wedge between the two Republicans.
“Mitt Romney is now trying to etch-a-sketch his way to the middle, and yet he picked Paul Ryan as a way of demonstrating to the base that he was attached to the conservatives. So which is it?” she said. “It’s an opportunity for the vice president to ask, which is the real ticket?”
Biden played an important role for the re-election campaign in its early stages, delivering a series of “framing speeches” in battleground states laying out the ticket’s view of the contrast with Romney on key issues: the auto industry rescue package, entitlement programs, national security and taxes.
But his profile has been far lower since May, when he declared his support for same-sex marriage before Obama did. His penchant for gaffes resurfaced in August when he told a partly black audience in Virginia that Romney wanted to “put you all back in chains” by repealing Wall Street reforms.