ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Last week, Mitt Romney’s debate victory was elevated by the fact that he stood on stage opposite a historic figure widely regarded as a great public speaker.
Paul Ryan will have a different problem when he debates Vice President Joe Biden in Kentucky on Thursday night: How do you prepare to debate someone who your supporters, some of your own staffers, and anyone who reads The Onion, are convinced is a cartoon character?
Biden’s tenure has been marked by a mixture of high moments of diplomacy on the international stage and Capitol Hill, and regular high-profile gaffes. Last week Biden said the middle class has been “buried” over the last four years. He’s constantly caught in awkward situations at diners across America. And he's entered the pop culture as a kind of friendly, off-kilter uncle. Republicans spent much of the summer — particularly after Democrats began their attacks on Ryan’s policy views — branding him unfit to lead. The result: expectations so comically low for the vice president that Ryan may struggle be able to exceed his own.
Ryan aides, seeking to lower expectations, paint Ryan as a novice debater, with limited experience from his congressional campaigns, and going up against the sitting vice president. (Romney said on CNN that it's potentially Ryan's first debate since high school). And while Ryan huddled in policy reviews and mock debates with aides in a basement conference room at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort on the bay in St. Petersburg, his aides have had unusually kind words for Biden.
“Vice President Biden has done 18 presidential or VP debates over the years —14 in 2008,” said one Ryan aide. “He’s always been a focused debater – it’s not a setting in which he makes gaffes.”
“Joe Biden is as experienced a debater as anyone in national politics, and he has a deep resume in domestic policy and foreign affairs,” said Ryan spokesman Brendan Buck. ”This is Congressman Ryan’s first time on this big stage, so we’re taking preparation seriously. After the President’s performance last week, we know Joe Biden will coming at us like a cannonball.”
But always in the wings is Onion Joe Biden — the caricature that has supplanted the actual vice president in the mind of much of the electorate — and Ryan’s own image as a competent policy wonk who should be unfazed by the bright lights.
Indeed, it is the buffoonish Biden that has dominated the GOP psyche for years — featuring prominently in introductory speeches for Biden and Romney on the campaign trail.
“It is great to be here in North Canton or, as Joe Biden might say, it's great to be here in Nevada,” Ryan said at an August rally in Ohio shortly after being selected as Romney’s running mate. He’s repeatedly called Biden “the gift that keeps on giving.”
“Joe Biden is our best surrogate for the Republican Party around this country,” said GOP chairman Reince Priebus earlier this year.
"I'm so excited I think I might throw a keg party for the Ryan-Biden debate," said Kid Rock Monday night while stumping for Ryan in Michigan.
It’s also been the long-held belief of conservatives; most recently embodied in a Bloomberg View column by Ramesh Ponnuru titled “Ryan-Biden Smackdown Should Be No Contest.”
“Representative Paul Ryan, everyone knows he is a formidable and unflappable debater,” Ponnuru wrote. “He knows the ins and outs of domestic policy at least as well as Biden, and speaks more authoritatively about them.”
Ryan himself testified to his debate chops noting his experience in the House.
“I enjoy debate. It's what we do in Congress,” he told Fox News in August
Meanwhile, Biden aides have tried to undercut efforts to raise expectations — while swearing off any sense of panic — after President Barack Obama’s meltdown last week.
"Nothing has changed whatsoever [as a result of the presidential debate]," an aide said. "There is a formula that works."
Biden is engaging in three-a-day practice sessions, including at least one nightly mock debate, in a five-day camp near his Wilmington, Del. home.
Among those in attendance are his senior White House advisers, former chief of staff Ted Kaufman, Mike Donilon, Ron Klain, his Ryan stand-in Chris Van Hollen, and Obama senior adviser David Axelrod.
“Axelrod planned to be there weeks ago,” an aide said, after reports suggested his trip to debate camp was damage control after the president’s performance.
His aides say they are preparing for what Obama was not — two opponents, one who sticks by controversial positions and one who does not.
"Like President Obama, Vice President Biden will use the upcoming debate as an opportunity to speak directly to the American people about what's at stake for the middle class in this election,” said a Biden campaign spokesperson. “He will continue to drive home the specific plans he and the President have to keep strengthening our economy and the middle class. Congressman Ryan, on the other hand, has a choice to make Thursday: either stand by the extreme positions he's been the face of for years — and that Governor Romney has fully embraced — like turning Medicare into a voucher program and cutting taxes for the wealthiest few at the expense of the middle class, or flat-out deny their existence as Governor Romney did in last week's debate."