They may not be at the top of the ticket, but there will be plenty to watch nonetheless when Vice President Joe Biden and Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan face off in Kentucky on Thursday night.
Biden, the experienced former Delaware senator with strong foreign policy credentials and blue collar roots, is often mocked by conservatives and those in the media for his frequent gaffes. He once asked a wheelchair-bound local political worker to "stand up." He called his eventual running mate, President Barack Obama, "articulate and bright and clean." And in 2010, when Obama signed his healthcare reform bill into law, Biden leaned over and said, "This is a big f-ing deal."
But to count on Biden, 69, to deliver a goofy or off-putting performance underestimates him and his ability to connect with everyday, working Americans, analysts say. On the campaign trail, though he often puts his foot in his mouth (earlier this year, he told a mixed race audience that those who want to deregulate Wall Street want to "put y'all back in chains"), he also delivers passionate addresses that bring crowds to their feet. He often touts his family's working-class, Scranton, Penn., roots and during his 30-year Senate career got the nickname "Amtrak Joe" because he was a fixture on the train from Delaware to D.C.
Obama even picked him as his No. 2 in part because he was impressed with his debate performances during the 2008 Democratic primary when the two men were rivals, recent reports say.
Ryan, on the other hand, is just 42-years-old and considered more of a budget-wonk than a zing-maker. But his age belies his own experience as a seven-term congressman who has debated each of his Democratic rivals at least once. And Republican nominee Mitt Romney picked Ryan for a political partner because of the energy he brings and his popularity with the base.
Ryan's upbringing was steeped in hard work, manifested both in his family's successful business and the array of jobs he worked while making his way through college. And on the campaign trail, Ryan's easy, folksy manner paired with his mastery of complex policy has been an asset to the Romney campaign.
In terms of the issues, it's likely Biden will attack Ryan on his budget proposals, which have called for deep cuts to spending in areas like education and welfare. On Medicare, Biden will highlight the Romney-Ryan plan to transform the program from a guaranteed benefit to a premium support, or voucher, program for those under 55-years-old.
Ryan, on the other hand, will go after Biden on the Obama administration's driving up of the federal deficit and oversight of one of the slowest economic recoveries in history. The nation's more than 40-months with unemployment at more than 8 percent provides Ryan with plenty of ammunition to attack Biden on the Democrats' economic policies.
Healthcare is another ripe target for Ryan, who will likely come armed with statistics about how Obamacare has failed to lower insurance premiums costs and has raised taxes on many.
How Biden handles Ryan's economic attacks and how Ryan responds to Biden critiques on foreign policy will be key things to watch. If one or the other can beat expectations in what is seen as their weak areas, he will come away with the upper-hand.
The debate, though expected to be widely viewed, has an even smaller impact on how voters will ultimately decide to cast their ballot than the actual presidential contests. But as last week's first face off between Obama and Romney showed, a commanding debate performance can help build enthusiasm with your base and create momentum as early voting gets underway.