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10 things to watch in tonight's Biden-Ryan debate

Vice President Joe Biden arrives on stage after US President Barack Obama's nomination acceptance speech at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina, on September 6, 2012. Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan speaks to the crowd at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa, Florida, on August 29, 2012 during the Republican National Convention.Stf / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News

If one thing is certain about Thursday’s vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Republican challenger Paul Ryan, it’s that their lone showdown this fall is shrouded in uncertainty.

On one hand, there’s Biden: the incumbent vice president whose assets as a folksy and aggressive advocate for President Barack Obama are undercut by instances in which he veers badly off-message.

On the other, there’s Ryan: the Wisconsin congressman who has cultivated a reputation as a budget wunderkind, but must now answer not just for his own ambitious reforms, but also for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s somewhat different proposals.

After a debate last week in which Romney was widely regarded as having bested Obama, the pressure is on Biden to land a blow on Ryan, and, by extension, Romney. The GOP, meanwhile, has hopes of adding momentum to the ticket with a strong outing by Ryan.

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

Here is a look at five factors for each candidate that could determine tonight’s outcome.


The vice president’s reputation for verbosity has dogged him since at least his 1987 run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

When asked by moderator Brian Williams, quoting an LA Times editorial, about whether voters could trust him to maintain discipline as president, Biden responded, with a grin: “Yes.”

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd previews Thursday's high-stakes vice presidential debate.

This was “Good Biden” – the self-deprecating politician beloved by fans for his jokes about his sparse coiffure and his puppy-dog courtship of his wife Jill.

More than five years later, as he readies to debate Ryan, Biden will undoubtedly face similar perceptions about his verbal discipline. From lamenting that the middle class has been "buried the last four years" to telling a heavily black audience that Republican banking policies would "put y'all back in chains," the “Bad Biden” has made his campaign speeches tub-of-popcorn-worthy viewing for gleeful Republican operatives.

Slideshow: Biden on the campaign trail

With that, here's a list of five things to watch during the upcoming VP debate:

Latching Romney to the Ryan budget
Biden told reporters last week that his top priority in preparing for the Thursday debate was a thorough review of Ryan's budget and policy proposals.

"What I've been doing mostly quite frankly is studying up on Congressman Ryan's positions on the issues," he said. "And Governor Romney has embraced at least everything I can see."

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Foremost among those positions espoused by Ryan are those contained in the two budgets he authored as House Budget Committee chairman. Several aspects of the original 2011 Ryan budget – which includes a complete overhaul of Medicare – are staples in Biden's stump speech. He gives visceral examples, telling audiences to imagine their 80-something mothers using "coupons" to shop around for a good insurance deal.

The more Biden is able to make the debate about the consequences of the less palatable elements of Ryan’s budgets, the easier the Obama campaign will breathe.

Nothing but the truth
Biden has no shortage of lines, tested during months on the campaign trail, which he’s ready to deploy Thursday against the Romney-Ryan ticket.

The vice president will be eager to paint Ryan as having a difficult relationship with the facts, from casting blame for the failure of the Simpson-Bowles fiscal commission to Ryan’s bogus marathon time. But not all of Biden's claims have been given an A+ rating by third parties, even as the VP has continually and publicly begged the press to check his facts.

His assertion that Medicare would "go bankrupt" by 2016 under a Romney-Ryan plan has been deemed an exaggeration. And his claim that the GOP duo would necessarily raise taxes on Social Security benefits is, at best, subject to the eye of the beholder.

But Biden says he is insisting on accuracy in Kentucky, telling reporters last week: "I don't want to say anything in the debate that's not completely accurate."

Slideshow: On the Trail

No matter what, the issue of credibility will be front-and-center in Danville as Republicans keep an eye out for any sign of exaggeration – especially given the standard he’s set for himself.

Impact of interviews
Biden has largely been shielded from journalists’ questions since veering off-message and pronouncing his support for same-sex marriage on “Meet the Press,” stepping on the president’s own announcement of support for marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples.

The vice president has occasionally taken questions from the traveling press corps following him on the trail and sat for some local interviews earlier this year, but it’s far from Biden’s record as one of the more prolific political interview subjects on network television.
And Biden’s recent exposure to the media is easily outpaced by Ryan, whose team has been happy to point out the staggering amount of local interviews he's done since being picked as the vice presidential nominee in August.

Biden is apt to be rusty when it comes to challenges from the press. Many of his headline-grabbing statements – including the "chains" and "buried" comments – have never been explained by the VP himself in an interview setting.

Experience and appearance
To uninformed viewers, the visual optics in this year’s vice presidential debate may not look that much different from four years ago, when Biden debated a fresh-faced Sarah Palin and faced a directive to avoid being condescending to the then-Alaska governor.

Like Palin, Ryan is an attractive, young newcomer to a national audience, but, unlike Palin, Ryan shares some common experience with Biden despite the decades that separate them.

Both men are Capitol Hill wonks who are readily acquainted with the hallways of Congress, and have worked extensively on budget matters like the Simpson-Bowles deficit plan and “supercommittee” negotiations, which each failed.

And although Ryan is a relative newcomer to foreign policy – an area where Biden established himself as a senator – he will be able to speak with more authority than Palin about the situation on the ground in the Middle East. Ryan has visited Iraq once and Afghanistan three times, with his most recent trip last year. That's a fraction of the visits by Biden, who's been to both countries a combined 20 times, but Ryan's experience doesn't quite invite the "I can see Russia from my house!" parody that so bedeviled the 2008 Republican VP candidate.

Biden's verbal crutches
The vice president has been long parodied for the overuse of his favorite adverbs and turns of phrase. Biden uttered the word "literally" so many times during his Democratic convention speech that the Obama campaign purchased Twitter ads for social media users searching for the word.

But a focused Biden doesn't always rely on his infamous verbal crutches. In his 2008 debate against Palin, he used the word "literally" only once in 90 minutes. "Ladies and gentlemen" and "folks" garnered only a few utterances, and not once did Biden profess that one of his claims was in fact "not hyperbole."  (The less frequently noticed "fundamental" did, however, get some healthy overuse from the longtime senator.)


Paul Ryan has been preparing for the most important moment of his political career – his debate Thursday evening versus Vice President Joe Biden – since the conclusion of the Republican National Convention in August.

In one debate prep session after another – in Oregon, Washington, DC, a resort in a remote part of Virginia and Florida – Ryan has been practicing for the only vice presidential debate of the cycle for weeks. The Wisconsin congressman has dedicated most of his time away from official events reading briefing books or holding mock debates versus Ted Olson, the former solicitor general and stand-in for Biden.

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

With that in mind, here are five things to watch tonight in Danville, KY:

Living up to the moment
Ryan might have served as a Wisconsin congressman for the past 14 years, but Thursday night’s debate will be the first time he has debated with the entire nation watching.

Ryan has sparred plenty with other members of Congress on the House floor and debated at least eight times with congressional candidates. But Biden is a far more seasoned debater, and the stakes this time for Ryan far exceed any of his previous debates.

Accordingly, the Romney campaign – along with Romney and Ryan – are downplaying expectations for the big debate.

"Obviously, the vice president has done, I don't know, 15 or 20 debates during his lifetime, experienced debater. This is, I think, Paul's first debate. I may be wrong. He may have done something in high school, I don't know," Romney said Tuesday on CNN.

Slideshow: Ryan on the campaign trail

Ryan told reporters inside an ice cream shop in Florida Wednesday: “Look, Joe Biden has been on this stage many times, this is my first time so sure it is a nervous situation because Joe Biden is one of the most experienced debaters we’ve had in modern politics. But the Achilles heel he has is President Obama’s record and I am really looking forward to giving the American people a very clear choice. “

Playing to his strengths: the budget
As the chairman of the House Budget committee, Ryan knows about the budget better than almost anyone in politics. Luckily for Ryan, Romney’s main message centering on dollars and cents, a topic Ryan is very comfortable discussing.

But while Ryan knows the budget well, he’s also a wonk. He won’t have a PowerPoint presentation available to help viewers understand trend lines and numbers,

His challenge will be to keep his answers simple enough so that people watching will actually understand the somewhat dense concepts.

Attacking Biden
Romney and Obama rarely attacked each other directly during last week’s presidential debate, focusing instead on policy differences.

It’s unlikely this trend will continue Thursday evening, as both Ryan and Biden face pressure to play “attack dog,” a more traditional role for a running mate.

One way that Ryan might go at Biden would be to revive comments made by the VP that the middle class was “buried” during the Obama administration.

Ryan told a crowd in Burlington, IA last week: “Vice President Biden just today said that the middle class over the last four years has been quote “buried’ -- we agree! That means we need to stop digging by electing Mitt Romney the next President of the United States. Of course the middle class has been buried. They are being buried by regulations, they are being buried by taxes…they are being buried by borrowing, they are being buried by the Obama administration’s economic failures.”

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As for Ryan, he believes Biden will hit back, telling WTMJ: "We think he's probably going to come at me like a cannonball.”

How well Ryan is prepared for and handles attacks could influence the debate’s outcome.

Foreign policy credentials
When Romney chose Ryan as his running mate, one of the biggest questions involved Ryan’s experience (or lack thereof) on the topic of foreign policy.

While Ryan has been to Iraq and Afghanistan a combination of four times as a lawmaker and deals with foreign policy matters as the House Budget Chairman, his experience hardly compares to Biden’s, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who has been an influential adviser to the president on foreign policy and national security.

Ryan has been studying on foreign policy during most of the past few months as the vice presidential nominee. Dan Senor, the Romney campaign’s leading foreign policy adviser, has been traveling alongside Ryan heavily since the VP announcement.

In the recent weeks, the GOP VP nominee has gotten much more comfortable answering questions regarding foreign policy – on Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and Israel. One of the bigger questions regarding Ryan involves whether this newfound ease emerges while sparring with Biden.

Letting ‘Paul be Paul’
Ryan’s Midwestern earnestness frequently manifests itself on the campaign trail, when he always uses ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘I’m sorry’ while speaking to crowds across the country.

But a debate often isn’t the most polite of environments, prompting a key question: Will Ryan act differently?

“I'm not really a line guy. I'm more of a gut guy,” Ryan said about the upcoming debate on Sept. 30 on Fox News. “I don't try to be anybody other than who I am. I believe in what I believe. I do what I do. And I really believe in the policies we're providing, that we're pursuing. And at the end of the day, I'm just going to go in there and be me.”

Given that Romney’s relatability has been one of the GOP nominee’s chief struggles, it’s all the more important that Ryan make up for Romney in that regard.

As a charismatic husband and father of three, avid hunter, and down-to-earth politician who maintains his Wisconsin residence, Ryan’s personality and humor usually come through during campaign rallies and especially on the ropeline. The challenge will be making sure this personality of the potential next vice president shows through Thursday and into the homes of the millions of Americans watching on TV.