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Published October 10 2012

Forum editorial: VP debate could be significant

The collective wisdom of the punditry suggests vice presidential debates don’t move the meter. That is, no matter how entertaining or informative the debates between the No. 2 men on the presidential ballot, voters still tend to pay more attention to the candidates at the top of the ticket.

VP tilts have had their memorable moments. Lloyd Bentsen’s classic “you’re no Jack Kennedy” during the 1988 debate with Dan Quayle is still the standard for zingers. Nonetheless, history indicates voters are not moved by vice presidential debates. Will tonight’s one-on-one between Vice President Joe Biden and Republican Rep. Paul Ryan break the pattern? Maybe it will, especially after President Barack Obama’s surprisingly weak debate performance against Republican Mitt Romney just a few days ago. The fallout from that one is still falling.

Biden is an old political hand. He’s been on the big stage for years. He understands the dynamics and pitfalls of an unrehearsed debate. Ryan, a brilliant, ideological policy wonk, is new to the national spotlight. Indeed, his first major venture into that light – his speech at the Republican National Convention – was notable for his nervous start. And that address was in a very friendly room.

Furthermore, the Romney-Ryan ticket has given the Obama-Biden team an opening that Biden likely will charge into tonight. Ryan’s budget proposal had become holy script for the Republican base, and Ryan himself emerged as the leading thinker among a new generation of hard-charging Republicans. But then along came Romney, fresh off his primary wins and convention coronation, which were possible only because he played to the rightest of his party’s right wing. Since then, the former Massachusetts governor has inched steadily and stealthily to the middle – and away from the core provisions of the Ryan budget, away from his pledge to repeal every last line of Obamacare, and away from his characterization of 47 percent of Americans as tax deadbeats. Romney enhanced his newfound affinity for the middle ground during the debate with the president, and that move seemed to befuddle Obama and help Romney win.

The questions: How does Ryan spin the obvious Romney shift away from a budget blueprint that goes to the very credentials that have made Ryan a legitimate political star? Is the Ryan budget proposal the bedrock document that was passed overwhelmingly by Republicans in the U.S. House, or is Romney’s evolving moderation the new party standard?

This is the stuff of which good debates are made. Biden and Ryan hail from far different places on the political/ideological spectrum. Their world views differ both generationally and philosophically. Biden’s history confirms his debating skills and the depth of his experience. Ryan is a no-holds-barred newbie leader whose rhetoric is informed by deeply held policy beliefs.

This time the VP debate might have more heft among voters because of the personalities of the debaters, the stark policy differences, and the unexpected performances of Romney and Obama in their first debate.

A lot is at stake. Tune in.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.

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