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Fight night: More jabs expected in VP showdown

Image: Ashton Arvin, John Thompson
Ashton Arvin, 17, left, and John Thompson, 18, right, hold up signs for their respective candidates ahead of the vice presidential debate between Republican vice presidential candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Vice President Joe Biden, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012, at Centre College in Danville, Ky.David Goldman / AP
/ Source: NBC News

Vice President Joe Biden enters Thursday night's vice presidential debate with a mandate to aggressively defend President Barack Obama's record following the presidential debate last week, which saw Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney score a prime-time victory over the president.

NBC's Domenico Montanaro previews tonight's vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan. Also, new battleground state polls in Ohio, Virginia, and Florida show Mitt Romney closing the gap from before the first presidential debate last week.

The political spotlight turns this evening to Danville, Ky., where Paul Ryan — the Wisconsin congressman who, two months ago, agreed to serve as Romney's running mate — hopes to build upon the momentum earned by Romney last week in Denver.

Biden and Ryan will meet tonight at Centre College for their first and only debate, but one that is a high-stakes affair.  In contrast to the presidential debates, the running mates often serve as the unofficial "attack dog" for the top of the ticket, raising the prospect for fireworks in the 90-minute affair, moderated by ABC's Martha Raddatz

Related: Despite age gap, some similarities between Biden and Ryan

The Biden-Ryan matchup will help further set the stage for the two more debates between Obama and Romney scheduled for later this month.

Romney's previous debate performance, which saw the GOP hopeful deliver crisp attacks and adopt a more centrist tone, has helped him make up ground against Obama in several national and state-level polls. Obama's advantage narrowed to a point among likely voters in Florida (48 percent to 47 percent), according to NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist polls released Thursday, and Romney led Obama by a point (48 percent to 47 percent) among likely voters in Virginia. Obama maintained a 51 percent to 45 percent advantage over Romney in the key battleground state of Ohio, as well.

Slideshow: Biden on the campaign trail

Republicans hope a second strong outing, this time by their ticket's No. 2, will help propel Romney to a better position to overtake the Democratic incumbent in the final weeks of the campaign.

Ryan wound down his preparations Wednesday in Florida, where former solicitor general Ted Olson played the role of Biden in practice sessions. Speaking to reporters while making a stop for ice cream, Ryan said his debate prep "went well."

"What I am excited about is we get to offer the American people a very clear choice," Ryan said. "Look, Joe Biden has been on this stage before. He has been on these big stages. This is my first time. But what he can’t run from is President Obama’s indefensible record. They are just offering more of the same. I am excited because we have a chance yet again to offer this country a very clear."

Biden, meanwhile, has been squared away back at his personal residence in Delaware to prepare for tonight's contest.

Slideshow: On the Trail

"You can expect the vice president to do what he does best: talk about what's at stake for the middle class in this election," Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who is playing Ryan in debate preparations with Biden, said in an online video Wednesday. "The vice president is taking this moment seriously, speaking directly to the American about their hopes, and this ticket's plan to keep fighting for the middle class and moving the country forward in a second term, is what he's great at and what he loves to do."

The vice president's practice debates were attended by Obama campaign staff and longtime aides to the former Delaware senator. Biden has also reportedly been reading the "Young Guns" manifesto by Ryan, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., as part of his prep work.

Despite the preparations, both campaigns have sought to downplay expectations for their respective candidates' performances this evening, a time-honored tradition that extends to vice presidential debates.

Related: Ryan brings policy details, but supplies Biden with a big target

And Biden and Ryan both bring a series of strengths and weaknesses to the table.

The vice president, for instance, has become an effective advocate for Obama in white, working-class towns where the president typically struggles. Biden's folksiness and readily apparent comfort before blue collar crowds has made him able to make inroads in communities where the president might not otherwise tread.

"I would tell Joseph Biden, be yourself, you're very good at this," Democratic New York Sen. Charles Schumer said Tuesday on MSNBC.

But that's also a sentiment shared by Republicans, given how Biden's off-the-cuff demeanor has sometimes led to gaffes that snowball into a headache for the Obama campaign. Republicans turned the vice president's recent comment that the middle class had been "buried" by the economy in the last four years into a self-referential attack on the administration (though Biden had been alluding to the lingering effects of the Bush economy).

Slideshow: Ryan on the campaign trail

Likewise, Ryan offers Republicans opportunity and vulnerability.

The Wisconsin congressman is regarded as one of the GOP's more articulate voices when it comes to fiscal issues; Republicans often argue that if they were to pick one person to explain the party's plans to reform entitlements and the tax code, it would be Ryan.

But the House Budget Committee chairman will also be held to account for some of the more controversial elements of the two budgets he's authored, especially for their proposed changes to Medicare. Democrats have accused his first budget of eliminating Medicare as it's commonly known and turning it into a voucher system. (A second iteration allowed seniors to maintain traditional Medicare or chose a reformed "premium support" plan.)

Ryan also pales in foreign policy experience compared to Biden, a key adviser to Obama on global and diplomatic issues and a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But Ryan has shown more ease in recent week echoing Romney's own criticism of the Obama administration's foreign policy, which focuses on its handling of a recent attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya, and the deterioration in the U.S. relationship with Israel.