LEXINGTON, Ky. — The Denver debate last week finally made Mitt Romney the leader of his party and gave him his clearest shot at the White House — and put Paul Ryan in his place.
Ryan’s unusually heavy schedule — in comparison to Romney’s — took to the backburner for two rounds of debate prep. And where Ryan had been the more substantive of the pair through the first six weeks of the ticket as Romney fundraised, Romney’s foreign policy speech stole the headlines. Romney barnstormed through rare three-event days, while Ryan went unmissed.
Thursday's debate marked Ryan’s settling into the running mate’s traditional role: Less superstar than junior partner. It’s a role that two recent Republican campaigns had seemed to erase, with the heavyweight Dick Cheney followed by the controversial superstar Sarah Palin giving the position an unusual heft. But Biden has served in a fairly conventional, secondary role, and Paul Ryan settled Thursday into that position: Less Cheney or Palin than, say, a slight and wonky Al Gore.
Ryan’s role was to stump for his boss, to absorb attacks on his own record without complaint or rebuttal, and to reflect as many of them as possible back on the opposing ticket.
“Let me tell you about the Mitt Romney I know,” Ryan said during the debate when Biden pressed him on Romney’s New York Times editorial advocating bankruptcy for Detroit automakers. Ryan testified to Romney’s character by telling the story of Romney helping out a family that has two paralyzed children, celebrating Christmas with them and offering to pay for their college tuition.
Indeed, throughout the debate, as Biden sought to pin down the congressman on his specific policy positions, Ryan wouldn’t have it, defending his plan with Romney, and using his time to defend his running mate before himself.
For instance, Ryan let a scathing attack on his own request for stimulus funds, for instance, go essentially unrebutted — though it cuts to the core of his image as a principled anti-spending conservative.
When the topic turned to Libya, Ryan defended Romney’s early statement condemning “apologies” from the White House. But he ignored Biden’s counter-attack on his own record as a member of the House of Representatives, where he voted on a measure to cut $300 million from the diplomatic security budget.
Top campaign aides sought to downplay expectations for a fiery Ryan in the hours before the debate, noting they expected more fireworks from Biden. “[Ryan] didn’t want to become the story,” said an aide, who said Ryan practiced around a table mocked like the debate set and drilled how to avoid getting “sidetracked” by Biden.
“Our message last night was simple. The Romney plan offers a vision for the next four years,” said the aide, emphasizing the top of the ticket. “President Obama doesn’t.”
This was not just the absence of Ryan as the man of big ideas. It was also the end of his role as superstar who threatened to overshadow Romney. Ryan was careful and workmanlike, doing no harm to himself and creating openings for his ticket to exploit in the days ahead.
His selfless performance stood in sharp contrast to Biden’s sudden promotion. The Vice President did what Obama had failed to do last week, and enjoyed one of the finest hours of his political career. He made himself the toast of a party elite that had spent decades wincing when he opened his mouth — a hero of the base.
Biden attacked and attacked, and made the race all about Romney and Ryan, as though he were the nominee. Barack Obama was mentioned just once, and Biden — unlike Ryan — spent little time defending his running mate in particular.
In the post-debate spin room, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina ignored a question of why Obama had failed to make the case last week.
Last night’s debate “was about making sure everyone understood the clear difference in this election,” he said.