What Paul Ryan Must Do in the Vice Presidential Debate

In his debate against Vice President Joe Biden, Ryan must know his facts and play up his Midwestern roots.

Republican vice presidential candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., speaks at a rally at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., Monday, Oct. 8, 2012.

Last week, we put to rest the old saw about how presidential debates don't matter. This week, we'll put to rest the notion that vice presidential debates don't matter.

After President Barack Obama's lackluster performance in Denver, challenger Mitt Romney has surged to even or better in both national and the all-important swing state polls. His campaign has a new bounce in its step, and Americans from all walks of life seem to have warmed to him.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

This week, Democrats will seek to stall his momentum in the one and only vice presidential debate. Vice President Joe Biden, who has been in Congress for close to 40 years and twice run for president, will take on Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman, chairman of the House Budget Committee, and to many, the intellectual leader of the Republican Party.    With the polls tightening and the campaign in its final month, the stakes could not be higher. Any gaffe, any overstatement, any attempt by either to show disrespect toward the other, could send polls rocketing in the opponents' direction at a time when such damage could be irreparable.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Paul Ryan.]

If this were a basketball game, Ryan's task would be to play solid man-to-man defense, prevent his opponent from ever getting a clear path to the basket and avoid the temptation—which is not small with Biden at the other lectern—to try to force a mistake.

Specifically, Ryan should:

  1. Know the facts. Biden is gaffe-prone, but he also is a seasoned veteran with a firm grasp of a variety of issues. Ryan should be prepared for attacks on his budget plan, his Medicare reform plan, Romney's jobs plan, and a broad range of policy areas. He should demonstrate command of his facts, be alert for misrepresentations by Biden, and stand prepared to set the record straight when necessary.
  2. Be respectful. It is important to set the record straight, but it also is important for Ryan, 42, to not come across as disrespectful of the 69-year-old vice president. Voters already have a low opinion of Biden; Ryan need not go out of his way to point out the weaknesses. Again, it's box out, deny the easy path, maintain good defensive positioning.
  3. Play up Midwestern, working-class roots. Ohio and working-class voters in nearby states, such as Iowa and Ryan's home state of Wisconsin, could well decide this election. Many work in factories that make car parts and thus are grateful for the auto bailout. The tide turned in Romney's favor after the debate. Ryan must capitalize on this by reminding voters he is one of them, sees things their way, and seeks solutions to their problems. 
  4. Weave in personal stories. Voters know far more about Biden and President Obama than they do about Ryan and Romney. This is Ryan's opportunity to even this up in a nonthreatening way. Come November 6, millions of voters will choose the candidates whose policy positions most closely align with their views, but millions of others will choose the candidates they personally like the most. It is important to appeal to both.
  5. [See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

    Biden's mission is to discredit Ryan, to make Romney's decision to select him look like a mistake. Ryan's is to demonstrate competence, to assure Americans that he is no joke and would be prepared to take over if necessary. Beyond that, this is a debate about Romney, his policies, and thanks to last week, his recent surge. Ryan would do well to remember that.

    • Read Mort Zuckerman: Why the Country Is Unhappy Under Obama
    • Read Brad Bannon: Without the Economy, What Does Romney Have Left Against Obama?
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