Crew members prepare the stage for Thursday's vice presidential… (Chip Somodevilla / AFP/Getty…)
First off, let's get this out of the way: Thursday night's vice presidential debate does not matter, in terms of deciding which presidential candidate will emerge victorious in November.
Vice presidential debates have never had much of an influence over the outcome of presidential races, even when a clear winner has emerged, although in the latter case they have enhanced or ruined the individual reputations of assorted veeps and veep wannabes. That's why, although there certainly will be viewers wonky enough to want to hear the details of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan's plans for Medicare or Vice President Joe Biden's ideas about equitable taxation, most will probably tune in for the same reason they watch NASCAR races: In hopes that one of the two (and let's face it, the big money is on Biden) will crash and burn spectacularly.
Heaven knows, fear of a Biden rhetoric malfunction has been keeping the Obama camp up at night for the last several months; there's no other explanation for their apparent effort to keep the vice president, who would normally be seeking maximum exposure as the president's attack dog during this time, under wraps. ABC News noted that Biden's appearance at the debate will mark the first time since May that he has answered questions on national television. You may recall what happened in May: During an interview on a Sunday talk show, Biden said he was "absolutely comfortable" with same-sex marriage, a position that put him at odds with President Obama's official policy at the time and made Obama look wishy-washy. Pundits roasted Biden and Obama alike; Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank wrote, "If Vice President Biden continues to make public appearances during this campaign, White House press secretary Jay Carney should be offered a membership in the janitors' union."
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Obama subsequently announced his endorsement of gay marriage, and later acknowledged that Biden had forced his hand. And then Biden all but vanished from the airwaves.
Despite Biden's gaffe history, crash fans may not get their wish. He turned in a respectable debate performance against Sarah Palin in 2008, in which Palin emerged looking unprepared and ill-informed, which of course she was, while Biden didn't do anything to hurt Obama's campaign (but didn't do much to help it either). Ryan is a different category of opponent than Palin, but this debate promises to be a shout-fest, and Biden can shout as well as anybody.
Why all the shouting? In part because of this debate's format, and in part because of what happened during the first presidential debate last week. Obama's performance was weighed in the balance by pollsters and pundits and found wanting, in large part because of his passivity. Seemingly in a bid to look presidential, or maybe just because his debating skills were rusty (or was it the altitude?), Obama allowed multiple questionable assertions by Republican opponent Mitt Romney to go unchallenged, even as Romney aggressively countered Obama's attacks against him. There is little chance Biden will make the same mistake, nor will Ryan. But to successfully counter an attack, it helps to do what Romney did last week: ignore the moderator, speak over your time limit, interrupt your opponent and generally behave in ways your mom would spank you for if you weren't running for the highest office in the land. With Biden and Ryan both hyped up on adrenaline and talking points, the only thing standing between these two men and a big-dog barking contest is the moderator.
TRANSCRIPT: First presidential debate
The moderator for the vice presidential debate is Martha Raddatz.
Actually, Raddatz may not be as famous as, say, Jim Lehrer, but she is nonetheless a solid TV journalist with an impressive resume at first NPR and then ABC News. She has four Emmys and numerous other awards and is the author of a bestselling book, "The Long Road Home -- a Story of War and Family." So she's not a pushover -- like, say, Jim Lehrer. But can she be more successful at putting a leash on Ryan and Biden than Lehrer was at hushing Romney? It will be interesting to find out, but the odds are against her.