By Craig Gilbert
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MILWAUKEE — For Paul Ryan, tonight’s debate with Vice President Joe Biden is a chance to do some short-term and long-term political good.
In the long run, it’s an image-shaping moment that could color popular perceptions of Ryan — good or bad — for years to come.
In the short run, there’s an election to win. And Ryan will be trying to build on the momentum from Mitt Romney’s debate against President Barack Obama, just as Democrats are hoping Biden can turn the tables.
“There’s pressure on both people,” says GOP national chair Reince Priebus, citing Romney’s recent gains and the big audiences and glaring spotlight that come with national debates.
“(They) have become a real focal point of American culture,” Priebus says.
“For (Ryan), it’s clearly the biggest night of this campaign,” says political scientist Will Howell of the University of Chicago.
But the twist in vice presidential debates is that the candidates aren’t really supposed to be selling themselves. Ryan and Biden are trying to win an argument that isn’t about them.
“This is a surrogate debate,” says political scientist Sam Popkin, but “both of them are too proud to go automatically into surrogate roles . I think if Biden goes after Ryan, the Republicans win. Biden has to find a way to go after Romney. Nobody’s going to change their vote based on whether Biden is smarter than Ryan or better than Ryan” or vice versa.
Vice presidential debates are very far down the list of events that scholars and strategists view as election game-changers.
But the first presidential debate in Denver already has changed the political calculus for this one, held at Centre College in Danville, Ky.
There’s pressure on Biden to avoid another bad Democratic debate. There’s pressure on Ryan not to blow the second debate after Romney was seen as winning the first one.
“If Ryan were to somehow pull out a win, that on top of the Romney (win), could have a real impact,” says Democratic consultant Joe Trippi.
A lot of Democrats see Ryan’s record as a rich target in the debate, because of his controversial budget proposals and conservative votes on social issues.
Howell says it will be interesting to see how Ryan handles his own policy differences with Romney, especially since Romney seemed to move to the center in the first debate.
“The last Romney we saw was the moderate former governor from Massachusetts, not the Romney from the Republican primary,” Howell says. “(Ryan’s) politics, his ideology, doesn’t line up as cleanly with the moderate version of Romney.”
Ultimately for Ryan, the debate will become part of the larger story of how he performed in this campaign, a story that could help or hurt his own presidential prospects in the years ahead.
Critics have accused him of stretching the facts in his convention speech and mocked him for once embellishing his marathon time. Democrats have argued his tax and Medicare proposals made it easier to attack Romney for favoring the rich.
“It ramped up an issue divide where they’re getting killed . choosing the wealthy over the middle class,” Democratic pollster Paul Maslin said recently.
Conservatives have made precisely the opposite case, hailing Ryan’s presence on the ticket, complaining at times his political strengths haven’t been fully exploited, that there hasn’t been “enough Ryan.”
“All that’s wrong,” says GOP strategist Brad Todd. “Everyone who says vice presidential candidates ought to have a larger role has no idea what they’re talking about. That’s their job, to be understudy . Your job as (candidate for) vice president is to deliver a good speech at the convention, win the (vice presidential) debate, help out with your home state, raise a bunch of money, add something to the ticket’s policy portfolio and don’t screw up.”
Todd says Ryan will get “straight A’s” by those standards, although that verdict is sure to be debated both before and after the election.
The candidate’s brother, Tobin Ryan, says that despite all the warnings the family got at the outset that “this process is going to beat you down . I don’t think this process has gotten the best of Paul. I think it’s made him better.”
Ryan goes into the debate with mixed polling numbers - though better than Biden’s. In a recent national poll by the independent Pew Research Center, 44 percent of registered voters viewed Ryan favorably, 40 percent unfavorably. His numbers among Democrats were overwhelmingly bad; his numbers among Republicans were overwhelmingly good.
Ryan’s numbers in Wisconsin aren’t that different, despite his potential home-state appeal. In a poll by Marquette Law School at the end of September, 42 percent of all registered voters viewed him favorably, 42 percent unfavorably, with massive partisan division and independents evenly split.
Those independents are key, because the debate will be a singular opportunity for less partisan voters to form deeper judgments about a candidate they may have only seen in sound bites and TV ads.
Tobin Ryan says he expects his brother to project substance and civility.
“Paul brings no theater with him,” Tobin Ryan said. “I just can’t picture Paul being exclamatory (or) a sound bite waiting to happen.”
Ryan’s propensity to toss numbers around has drawn attention going into the debate. Some Republicans have worried about him getting too “geeky” in the debate. His brother says he hopes the format allows for his brother to show his “lighthearted” and “jovial” side.
Meanwhile Democrats portray Ryan’s facility with figures as a smokescreen.
“I think he’s capable of dazzling people with his numbers and (saying), ‘Oh, I can’t explain the numbers. It’s too complicated for you to understand,’” said Gwen Moore, Ryan’s Democratic House colleague from Milwaukee. “I’ve spent hours right into the midnight hours reading his charts and graphs. I’m not distracted by the razzle-dazzle of it all. But people can be razzled and dazzled.”
The debate also offers a dramatic contrast in age and experience between the 42-year-old Wisconsin congressman and the 69-year-old vice president, former presidential candidate and longtime U.S. senator. But in another Pew national poll, 40 percent of voters said they expected Ryan to do a better job on the debate, while only 34 percent expected Biden to do a better job.
“I think it’s very, very fortunate from Ryan’s point of view that Romney did so well (in Denver) because otherwise he’d have this really big choice: Do you protect your future or work for your candidate?” asks Popkin, a professor at the University of California, San Diego who has worked on past Democratic campaigns.
His argument: Had Romney bombed and fed expectations of a GOP defeat in November, Ryan might have been more focused on protecting his own image than promoting Romney’s.
“It’s just much cleaner now,” Popkin said. “He has only one goal. That’s to get to the White House.”
By Craig Gilbert
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