LEXINGTON, Ky. -- When then-Sen. Joe Biden set out to prepare for his debate against then-Gov. Sarah Palin in 2008, a campaign memo for his team made note of the obvious.
“No presidential or vice presidential candidate in history has received more advice on a debate than Sen. Biden has for his debate with Sarah Palin,” it read.
The media frenzy that surrounded the little-known Alaska governor as she burst onto the national scene made their lone debate in St. Louis must-see TV, which placed unique pressure on the longtime senator from Delaware. Even Democratic supporters at his campaign events routinely would ask him how he would treat the first woman on a Republican ticket.
Thursday’s face-off with Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan probably won’t match the record audience that watched the 2008 vice presidential debate. And so there’s a different type of pressure on Biden, especially given President Obama’s tentative performance last week against GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
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The campaign has signaled that Biden will be as aggressive in 2012 as he was restrained four years ago, when he kept his focus on the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, and very rarely engaged Palin directly.
Rather than lower expectations, as they did before the Obama-Romney debate, the Obama campaign and the vice president’s team are welcoming attention to what they see as a key opportunity.
On a conference call with reporters, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina promised a “robust debate” and showed a hint of what Biden’s strategy might be.
“The vice president will speak directly to the American people about the progress we’ve made over the past four years and a concrete Obama-Biden plan to continue creating an economy that works for the middle class. And Joe Biden, as he always does, will speak the truth,” Messina said, as he accused Romney of saying “anything to win.”
“The question now is whether Congressman Ryan will adopt the same dishonest strategy or if he’ll stand by the very extreme positions he’s taken as the intellectual leaders of the Republican Party -- positions like vouchers on Medicare, his extreme budget that cuts the deficit on the back of the middle class and the poor, whether he wants to redefine rape as he proposed in Congress,” Messina added. “The question now is whether he’ll continue those same policies or whether he’ll try to gray them over as Romney is trying.”
“Unfortunately, as we’ve already seen, in everything from his fact-free convention speech to his exaggerated marathon time, Ryan isn’t afraid to skirt the truth. That’s what we expect to see tonight.”
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Ted Kaufman, a longtime Biden aide who was among those who huddled with the vice president in Delaware for debate prep, said Ryan presented a challenge – but one he described in terms that signal that same offensive posture.
“You don’t quite know which Ryan is going to show up,” he said in an interview. “It’s like a tennis match. You’ve got to know how they hit their forehand and backhand. If all of a sudden they show up just hitting the ball a totally different way, it’s going to take a while to straighten out.”
Aides have pointed to specific Ryan statements that might be fodder for Biden attacks. Two came from his Republican national convention speech in Tampa, Fla., when he implied that an auto plant in his district was shuttered after Obama took office (it closed while George W. Bush was president); and Ryan’s attack on Obama for dismissing the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission, even though Ryan himself had voted against the recommendations as well as one of its members.
Biden also can be expected to exploit a common vulnerability for VP picks, the fact that the newly-minted team may have had divergent policies at times. It was a challenge Biden himself faced four years ago when the 36-year Senate veteran teamed with a younger colleague he barely knew.
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Where Ryan has had to conform his own budget proposals with Romney’s, Biden will have little trouble defending administration policies he helped formulate in the White House.
“[Obama] helped a lot in making this work by including the vice president in just about everything, living up to his promise,” Kaufman said.
Not surprisingly, Republicans appear to have dived into Biden’s long congressional record to search for possible comebacks. They released a warning shot when the Republican National Committee circulated a report that Biden had supported a freeze in Social Security benefit increases in 1984. Republican proposals on entitlement programs are expected to be a focal point in the debate.
Biden appeared relaxed as he set out for Kentucky. He told reporters traveling with him from Delaware he was “looking forward to it.”
As for whether he might offer a “rope-a-dope” strategy, Biden asked: "You ever see me rope-a-dope?"
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