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Debate preview: Risks for both Biden and Ryan

The main even tonight is the vice-presidential debate between Vice President Joe Biden (D) and Congressman Paul Ryan (R). The pressure's on Biden to pick up the slack after President Obama's performance last week. But there's risk for both candidates.

Biden, it's no secret, can be gaffe-prone, but that tendency didn't show up in the 2007-2008 debates. He, in fact, won many, if not all, of those Democratic primary debates because of his deep knowledge of foreign policy, in particular, and his no-nonsense, plain-spoken way of cutting through.

Because of his elder-statesmen status, he runs the risk of appearing condescending toward Ryan. He avoided that potential pitfall against Sarah Palin in 2008, but then, he just needed a draw. Does he go for more because of the pressure from the base to exceed expectations? Biden flashed some of that tendency in an exchange during a health-care roundtable, all but dismissing Ryan and his use of the phrase "American people." 

The moderator of the debate, Martha Raddatz, is a foreign-affairs/national-security correspondent, so bet on foreign policy being a principal and serious topic. That carries a lot of risk for Biden, considering that means Libya will not only come up but will be litigated. Biden hasn't said much on Libya, but given the Capitol Hill hearing yesterday and the administration's changing story on what actually happened there, anything Biden says on it is likely to be news. 

Ryan, on the other hand, has never appeared on a national debate stage, though he has participated in eight congressional debates, according to his campaign, not just since high school, as Mitt Romney said earlier this week. Because of that, Ryan needs to prove that he belongs a heartbeat away from the presidency. If there's any doubt about that, it could mitigate some of the gains Romney made last week.

It's not anywhere near the threshold Palin had to prove, given John McCain's age and history of health issues, as compared to Romney's sterling health, as well as Palin's own fumbles. Ryan is seen as a fundamentally more serious candidate than Palin, but with his youthful looks, it's still something to watch if he struggles. Of course, Dan Quayle's struggles didn't affect George H.W. Bush winning in 1988.

Ryan's challenge is also to avoid getting on the defensive about his and Romney's math. He has, at times, showed a prickly side that might not come off well to a national audience. But like his boss, he will likely be acutely aware of his image. Ryan will also likely have to square his positions and budget plan with Romney's plans, which have, at times, diverged. That can be a challenge, but not an insurmountable one, and one his team likely sees coming.

Here's how some others set the table for tonight's debate:

AP: “President Barack Obama has offered his take on the debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan, saying ‘Joe just needs to be Joe. Obama offered his remark to in an interview with ABC News on the eve of Thursday night’s vice presidential debate.”

The Boston Globe: “Once anticipated as an entertaining sideshow between two feisty candidates, the vice presidential debate Thursday night has taken on higher, unexpected importance in the wake of President Obama’s listless performance last week in Denver. Democrats are nervous, Republicans sense a surge, and Vice President Joe Biden and GOP challenger Paul Ryan suddenly have a chance to influence the campaign in a substantive way when they meet at Centre College in Danville, Ky.”

In another AP piece: “Time running short, Vice President Joe Biden faces the greater burden in his debate with Republican Paul Ryan as he seeks to use the election’s only encounter between presidential running mates to slow Mitt Romney’s momentum and reset the campaign storyline in time for the next Obama-Romney debate. In the aftermath of President Barack Obama’s startlingly lackluster showing against Romney in last week’s debate, Biden’s job is to forcefully confront Ryan, and by extension Romney, while making a case for Obama’s policies that strikes an emotional chord with voters.”

The New York Times: “Expect Mr. Biden, who is able to deliver cutting sarcasm without seeming angry, to continue to make up for Mr. Obama’s passivity at the first debate by accusing Mr. Romney of dissembling about long-held policies. Mr. Ryan is prepared to vigorously set the record straight when he thinks the vice president is distorting, such as the charge that Mr. Romney has proposed $5 trillion in tax cuts directed toward the wealthy.”

USA Today: “Both sides expect Vice President Biden to be on the offensive when he shares a Kentucky stage with GOP candidate Rep. Paul Ryan in the one and only televised vice presidential debate Thursday night.”

The Washington Post: “The main goal for Ryan’s inner-circle: get him comfortable answering questions in broad terms that connect with voters and avoid the wonky, in-the-weeds answers more appropriate for a budget hearing than a living room. Ryan’s team wants to keep him talking about positive changes a Romney-Ryan administration would mean for the country, not a full-throated defense of the campaign’s sometimes nebulous math.”

National Journal: “Vice presidential debates rarely matter as much as their presidential counterparts, but Thursday’s showdown between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan could prove an exception. Tens of millions of voters will tune in to watch both men make the case that their ticket is the right one for America, while trying to live up to a host of other expectations.”

USA Today previews what to watch, including if Biden can help Obama, the Ryan budget, Biden’s potential for gaffes, Ryan’s youth, and if either side attacks.

Mark Z. Barabak: “When Joe Biden and Paul D. Ryan take the stage for Thursday night's vice presidential debate, it won't exactly be a contest between two beloved or widely admired political figures. … Biden's problem is compounded by a tendency toward verbal stumbles. … If there is a bright side for Biden, it is the fairly low expectations he faces heading into his Kentucky debate with Ryan. Only about a third of those surveyed by Pew expected Biden to do the better job; 40% said they expected Wisconsin congressman Ryan to turn in a superior debate performance.”

Bloomberg/Business Week: “The next turn of the U.S. presidential race hinges on two men who embody the philosophical differences between the political parties more starkly than the candidates at the top of the tickets.”

The L.A. Times notes the national Catholic “divide will be in sharp focus Thursday when the two vice presidential candidates, Democratic incumbent Joe Biden and his challenger, Rep. Paul D. Ryan, meet in Danville, Ky., for their only debate of the fall campaign. When they step onto the stage, it will spotlight a first in American history: Never before have both major-party tickets for the White House featured a Roman Catholic. It would be hard to find better representatives of the two poles of American Catholicism. Both men are deeply steeped in their faith, yet they disagree on issues of crucial importance to the church and to society: abortion, healthcare, the government's role in caring for the poor.”