RACINE, Wis. — Vice President Joe Biden and the man who would replace him, Rep. Paul Ryan have begun, unexpectedly, to dominate the political conversation at a moment when their senior partners seek to keep politics at arm’s length amid a national disaster.
The emergence of the vice presidential candidate, typically afterthoughts, as standard-bearers on the last day of October is without precedent in modern American politics. But the political campaign itself has become a kind of muted undercard to the riveting images and stories emerging from the devastated East Coast. President Barack Obama is engaging in the most powerful form of politics available simply by doing his job of leading the nation through a crisis. And Romney is intensely aware that he has little choice but to stand down.
“One of the reasons we're making sure that we're striking a positive tone today is there are some folks that are still dealing with the remnants of the storm today,” a top Romney aide, Kevin Madden, said on Tuesday, noting the candidate’s plugs for Red Cross donations and saying Romney is likely to stay on a generalized positive message. “I think for the remainder of the campaign, from here all the way until Election Day, the governor does want to talk about specifically what he would do on day one as president,” he said.
Meanwhile, most of the voters who count live outside Sandy’s path. And Biden, in Florida, and Ryan, in Wisconsin, conducted a long-distance sparring match Wednesday over the auto-bailout, largely to the benefit of voters in a few counties in Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
Biden fired first, starting his first rally since the storm in Sarasota with the warning to supports that he was "going to give you the whole load" on the subject.
He called the campaign’s ad on Chrysler starting Jeep production in China "one of the most flagrantly dishonest ads I can ever remember in my political career,” and an "an outrageous lie." The Romney campaign maintains that the ad is factually correct, however the context — and Romney’s false comments a few days before the ad was released that the company was moving jobs out of Ohio to make the cars overseas — have drawn criticism as misleading.
Ryan, who had avoided attacking — or even mentioning by name — the president and vice president, responded:
Today you might have heard that Joe Biden, again, was at it again. Today he was talking about the government bailout, which they keep touting as an unqualified success story. I tell you what, ask those salaried Delphi workers in Oak Creek if they feel like it was a success story. Ask the Chrysler Kenosha engine people if they think that this was a success story. The facts, they speak for themselves. President Obama took GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy; taxpayers still stand to lose $25 billion for the president’s politically managed bankruptcy. These companies, Chrysler in particular, are now choosing to expand manufacturing overseas. These are the facts. Those facts are inconvenient for the president, but no one disputes them.
In a way, the face-off was simply a return for Ryan and Biden to the traditional attack dog role reserved for running mates. Historically, conventional campaign wisdom has held that the nominees should try to stay above the fray, leaving the hand-to-hand combat to their number twos.
Take Sarah Palin or Joe Biden four years ago, who each delivered the harshest lines against the presidential candidates.
But attack politics are one thing. Now, Biden and Ryan seem to be the only ones able to conduct politics at all, a dramatic reversal. Until this week, the most attention-grabbing attack lines — from Big Bird to “Romnesia” — have come from the nominees themselves. But campaign aides on both sides now say the hurricane, which took dozens of lives along the East Coast within a week of Election Day, has permanently changed the tone and tenor of the race.
President Obama took his third consecutive day off from campaigning Wednesday, instead touring storm damage on the Jersey Shore with Governor Chris Christie.
Romney, meanwhile, made a tentative return to the trail, delivering a defanged version of his stump speech at rallies across Florida. He never mentioned President Obama by name, and he devoted much more time to articulating his economic agenda.
At the final rally of the day in Jacksonville, it was clear the same message had been passed down to surrogates appearing before Romney (though not all of them followed the instructions).
“We’re not supposed to say anything negative,” said one speaker, prompting laughter from the crowd. “I’m not gonna say anything negative about the president.”