6 Things to Watch for in Tonight’s Veep Slugfest
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The Fiscal Times
October 11, 2012

New polls showing the presidential race tightening in key battleground states are putting added pressure on Vice President Joe Biden to deliver a strong performance tonight against Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan in their only debate of the campaign season at Centre College in Danville, Ky.

Vice presidential debates historically have been entertaining side shows to the main event and have not really made an appreciable difference in the polls, according to an analysis by the Gallup polling organization that goes as far back as 1976. However, this time could be different, as President Obama and his campaign team are scrambling to reassure Democratic supporters that Obama can bounce back from his disappointing performance against Republican nominee Mitt Romney in their first debate a week ago in Denver.

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Since then, Romney has benefited from a surge in Republican enthusiasm and optimism, and has essentially erased Obama’s lead in the national polls and in a handful of crucial, delegate- rich states that are still very much in play. The race between Romney and Obama is now razor-thin in Florida and Virginia, while Obama retains a six-point lead in Ohio, according to new NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist polls.

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Among likely voters, Romney holds a one-point advantage in Virginia, 48 percent to 47 percent, after trailing Obama in the Old Dominion by two points on Oct. 3, 48 percent to 46 percent. The president leads Romney by one percentage point in Florida — 48 percent to 47 percent — after holding an identical one-point lead on Oct. 3.

In Ohio, Obama leads Romney by six points, 51 percent to 45 percent, after leading 51 percent to 43 percent on Oct. 3. No Republican has ever won the presidency without carrying Ohio, and the two campaigns are investing enormous time and financial resources in wooing voters in the Buckeye States.

RELATED: Battle for the White House: Ohio Can Call It 

Meanwhile, the latest Quinnipiac University/New York Times survey of likely voters in Colorado, Virginia and Wisconsin found no sharp movement after the highly viewed debate  and the news last Friday that the unemployment rate had dropped below 8 percent for the first time since Obama took office. Romney led Obama, 48 percent to 47 percent, in Colorado, while Obama led Romney by 51 percent to 46 percent in Virginia and 50 to 47 percent in Wisconsin.

Between 44 percent and 51 percent of voters surveyed in Colorado, Virginia and Wisconsin said they thought better of Romneyafter seeing his performance, while a little more than a quarter of  the voters interviewed said they thought worse of Obama after the debate.

Biden, 69, the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who twice sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988 and 2008, has a reputation for being fearless in front of a microphone but prone to gaffes and verbal excesses that have gotten him into trouble. Primed after days of debate “boot camp” and rehearsals, Biden has said he is eager to draw sharp contrasts between himself and Ryan – something Obama failed to do effectively in his first encounter with Romney.

Ryan, 42, the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee whose budget plans call for deep cuts in domestic spending, tax cuts for the wealthy and major re-workings of Medicare and Medicaid, has had far less experience on the national stage. While few on Capitol Hill can match his mastery of the budget and domestic policy, it remains to be seen how well he keeps his poise under an attack by Biden.

The challenge for both men, say experts, is to keep in mind that they are the second banana on the ticket and to vigorously defend and talk up their running mates.  “The psychology of this debate is very interesting, actually,” political psychologist Bart Rossi told MSNBC earlier today. “It’s really not about the two people debating. It’s about how they project themselves and their personalities to the top of the ticket and how they project for the team – the two-man team.”

As the two men set to face off, here are six things The Fiscal Times will be looking for tonight’s 90-minute debate:

 Will Biden slip up and make another of his patented gaffes – like saying the middle class has been “buried” for the past four years or warning blacks in Virginia that “y’all will be back in chains” if Romney wins election and reverses Wall Street reforms?

 Will Ryan lose his cool?  Though he’s been in the House for 14 years, Ryan is not an experienced debater and – as he has demonstrated repeatedly lately —doesn’t like to be challenged with probing questions. After a testy interview with an ABC 12 television reporter in Flint, Mich., on Monday, he griped, “That was kind of strange, you trying to stuff words in people’s mouths.”

 Will Biden do what Obama failed to do in the debate last week, by reminding voters of Romney’s now recanted comment that “47 percent” of Americans pay no incomes taxes and consider themselves victims entitled to government handouts? Obama conceded he may have been too “polite” in his meeting with Romney by not hammering him on those elitist remarks to wealthy donors. But Biden, a mix of pit bull-like tenacity and blue-collar populism, is not likely to let the Romney-Ryan team off the hook.

 How much of the evening will be devoted to a discourse on Ryan’s own budget proposals? They call for deep domestic spending cuts, steady rises in the defense budget, an overhaul of Medicare and Medicaid, and other measures that Romney has disavowed or kept his distance from. Romney has stressed that Ryan is running for vice president, not president, and that Romney’s budget and tax plans are the ones that count. But Biden could cause some mischief by cherry-picking draconian spending cuts and entitlement policy shifts contained in both the Romney and Ryan budgets and forcing Ryan to try to explain away the differences.

 How well can Ryan finesse charges that Romney’s economic and spending policies just don’t add up? Obama allowed Romney to redefine his 20-percent across-the-board tax cuts as a boon to the middle class while avoiding explaining where he would find the $5 trillion necessary to offset the cost over the coming decade. Ryan has also repeatedly ducked that question, saying only that the tax cuts would be “revenue neutral.”

 How much will foreign policy intrude on the debate? Romney has sharply criticized the Obama administration’s handling of the crisis in Libya, U.S. plans for handling Israeli-Palestinian relations, and efforts to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Ryan is sure to weigh in on some of these controversies in what’s expected to be a wide-ranging debate. But foreign policy is Biden’s strong suit, and the Wisconsin congressman has to be careful not to step on a political landmine.

Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.