Vice President Joe Biden, left, and his rival in the November election,… (Mandel Ngan / AFP Photo (left);…)
The conventional wisdom is that debates between vice presidential nominees don't matter because vice presidents don't matter. This year's edition, which kicks off at 6 p.m. Pacific, is a bit different, however. Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, a conservative reformer who heads the House Budget Committee, is the guy who can best articulate his team's arguments for shrinking the federal government, slowing the growth of Medicare and Medicaid and changing the approach to the federal safety net. The Democratic incumbent, Vice President Joe Biden, may be best known for his gaffes, but he's also an old hand at foreign policy -- the GOP ticket's weak spot.
Plus, there's an unusual quotient of drama, thanks to last week's presidential debate. Republican Mitt Romney so thoroughly outperformed President Obama that the latter's tenuous lead in the polls has evaporated or even been reversed.
Moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News has an opportunity to enlighten the electorate on some important differences between the two candidates -- to dispel some of the vagueness about Romney and Ryan's plans, and to get a clearer statement of Obama's and Biden's goals for the next four years. Whether Raddatz does, though, depends on her willingness to ask more probing, less open-ended questions than did Jim Lehrer of PBS, the moderator of last week's presidential debate.
Here are my suggestions. (Offer yours in the comments section below.)
For Ryan: Romney has said that his tax plan is "not going to provide a tax break to high-income taxpayers." But that group includes many of the "job creators" the plan was supposed to encourage. So how will the tax plan help put people back to work?
For Biden: What would an Obama-Biden administration do to create jobs faster in the next four years than it's done in the last four?
For Ryan: How does the Romney-Ryan plan for Medicare differ from the version in your latest Path to Prosperity budget proposal? In particular, would the premium subsidies (a.k.a. "vouchers") in the Romney-Ryan plan be guaranteed to cover the cost of seniors' health insurance, regardless of how fast healthcare expenses grew?
For Biden: Obamacare extended the life of the Medicare hospital trust fund but didn't assure its long-term solvency. What would your administration do to preserve Medicare for future generations?
For both: Romney once called Russia this country's No. 1 geopolitical foe. What country or force do you believe ranks as America's biggest geopolitical foe, and why?
For both: If sanctions fail to oust the Assad regime in Syria or stop the development of nuclear weapons in Iran, should the United States be willing to go to war?
For Ryan: Romney has said that too many regulations have been imposed in the last four years, but he also says some regulation is necessary. Which rules should be rolled back and which ones preserved?
For Biden: Business groups complain that regulations are stifling growth. How might your administration respond if given four more years in office?
For both: Should the federal government continue to guarantee that impoverished Americans have health insurance, regardless of the cost? And if so, how would you slow the growth of Medicaid's budget?
That's a lot to ask, and many of those questions probably get too far down into the policy weeds. But then, Ryan is a policy wonk's policy wonk, and Biden's no slouch.
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Live commentary: Watch the VP debate with us starting at 6 p.m. PDT
Follow Jon Healey on Twitter @jcahealey