Palin-nice or Ryan-tough: How Biden may shift his debate style

Vice president Joe Biden, left,  preps for a debate again Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan.

Story highlights

  • Biden in 2008 wasn't sure how to approach Palin; in 2012 he's freer to throw jabs at Ryan
  • A good debate performance could reverse negative headlines after the presidential debate
  • Campaign official: "The vice president has never been shy about contrast"

In the fall of 2008, as Sen. Joe Biden pondered the delicate task of debating Gov. Sarah Palin, his debate team honchos circulated an internal preparation memo.

The first sentence: "No candidate for president or vice president in the history of the country has had more advice on what to say than Sen. Biden has on his debate with Sarah Palin."

Biden's then chief of staff Ted Kaufman, who's been friends with Biden for 40 years and was a part of that debate prep, recalled the line to CNN.

"And it's absolutely true," Kaufman said of Palin, then the governor of Alaska and a popular yet polarizing politician mostly unknown on the national stage. "Everybody had an idea about how to deal with Sarah Palin. And I think most of it wasn't the issues. It was more of just how do you deal with her because she is so unique.

"Most people felt it was just different and difficult to debate her."

On Thursday in Danville, Kentucky, Biden's debate team will have no such worries.

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    In the first and only face-off between the vice president and the congressman who wants his job -- Republican vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan -- advisers say Biden will be free to do what he does best: draw sharp contrasts and, perhaps, throw sharp elbows against a well-known conservative star.

    A successful performance by Biden could reverse negative headlines and chatter aimed at the Obama campaign following the first debate between the president and challenger Mitt Romney.

    It could also provide an Aha! moment for Biden supporters who have long argued the vice president's usefulness on the ticket and temporarily silence critics who key in on his gaffes. Biden's effectiveness in recent visits to Republican battlegrounds -- a clear attempt to pick off conservative votes -- could also prove his political worth.

    Yet both tasks are risky. Experts agree that Biden is notably disciplined in high-stakes debates and his appeal can keep the race close in some traditional red states and red counties of swing states. But others note that missteps could cut deep.

    "Normally with Biden, by his reputation, whenever he has a high-profile speaking engagement he has to tone it down. Because he has this reputation for gaffes," said Eitan Hersh, an assistant professor of political science at Yale University and an expert on campaign strategy.

    "And here, he can't really do that because he needs to be really motivated and enthusiastic and the opposite of lethargic."

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    "It's not like the Sarah Palin situation. There you had the age and experience gap plus the male-female," said Alan Schroeder, a professor at Northeastern University. "I think having two men on the stage does liberate Biden a lot compared to 2008. But anytime you go up against someone who is junior to you, in age and experience, you have to be careful not to condescend."

    After a widely panned performance by President Obama in his first debate with Romney, many Democratic supporters, journalists and even Republicans will watch to see how much Biden goes on the attack to make up for the president's admitted missed opportunity.

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    "Biden has a lot more pressure on him now than if, in fact, President Obama had even done a decent job," said Paula McClain, dean of Duke University's graduate school and a professor of political science. "I don't think anyone can argue that [Obama] blew a tremendous opportunity."

    "He cannot duplicate that," echoed Lynn Vavreck, an associate political science professor at UCLA and co-author of the book, "The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election."

    His advisers explained Biden's goal -- and opportunity.

    "The vice president has never been shy about contrast," a campaign official said. "And he's never been shy about laying out...two fundamentally different visions for this country. He and the president are moving the country forward. He and the president believe that the Romney-Ryan agenda would bring us back to the failed policies that [hurt] our economy."

    Helping Biden sharpen the contrasts in debate camp over the last few days in Wilmington, Delaware, are Kaufman; Ron Klain, another former chief of staff to Biden; Obama campaign senior adviser David Axelrod; and long-time adviser Mike Donilon, among others.

    "He's been watching recent interview and speech footage of Ryan," the campaign official said. "He's talking to policy specialists about different topics.

    "These guys are both good debaters," the official said. "They're both experienced guys. Paul Ryan's been the face of Republican policies for a long time. And the Ryan budget is the congressional blueprint for moving forward. For six years he's been the top Republican on the budget committee and his grasp for policy is second to none.

    "Ryan's in a little bit of a box. Will he stand by the extreme positions that he and Romney hold? Or does he deny them and sort of deny their existence as Romney did the other night?"

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    Kaufman echoed the sentiment. "One of the hard things about preparing for a debate with Congressman Ryan is that you just don't know what positions he's going to take," Kaufman said.

    "You've got to prepare for two or three different Ryans based on which Ryan, you know, shows up."

    Since last week's debate, Democrats have cast Romney as a political chameleon attempting to change from red conservative to purple moderate.

    But Romney and his supporters have beat back those notions.

    Regarding the debate, Romney told CNN's Wolf Blitzer in a Tuesday interview: "I think President Obama and I both had a good chance to describe our respective views as to how we'd do a better job. And I, frankly, think I benefited from the fact that rather than having people learn about me from ads prepared by my opposition, they got to actually hear what I would do from myself. And I think that helped me."

    Meanwhile, some Republicans have turned the arrows toward the vice president. Two of them occupy a special place in Biden political lore.

    Christine O'Donnell tried to unseat Biden in 2008 before she waged a widely watched 2010 Senate race in Delaware in which she famously declared, "I'm not a witch."

    By the time of the general election, Obama had picked Biden as his running mate. As Biden ran for vice president he also ran for re-election to the Senate. Once Biden elevated to the White House, ending his 36-year Senate career, Kaufman was picked to fill out the rest of Biden's term.

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    O'Donnell hoped to debate Biden for their Senate race but he denied her the match up.

    In a statement to CNN, O'Donnell claimed that Biden "represents everything that is wrong with politics in America today."

    "America will see a clear contrast between Rep. Ryan and him in the debate, and I am confident that benevolent capitalism will win out over the Obama-Biden collectivism."

    Another former opponent was equally biting.

    Ray Clatworthy, a Delaware businessman, ran against Biden in 1996 and in a rematch in 2002. He is the last person to square off against Biden in a Senate debate.

    Clatworthy, who supports Romney, recalled numerous debates with Biden over the two election cycles. He called them "somewhat frustrating."

    "I mean, Joe's a glib guy. He's a smart guy. But he is what he has to be at the moment. He will say almost anything at a given time in order to be able to advance his cause."

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    Clatworthy did call Biden a disciplined debater. But it was not intended as a compliment.

    "In that debate...I'm sure they will have him just as disciplined as he's ever been," Clatworthy said. "But you won't be seeing the real Joe Biden."

    A senior Democratic strategist, who did not want to be identified, said, "Sounds like what a guy who lost races and lost debates would say."

    Biden beat both O'Donnell and Clatworthy by wide margins, with notable shares of Delaware's Republican vote -- though many in the blue state are moderate.

    Kaufman said that Biden has always attracted Republicans.

    Referring to Biden's first Senate victory, Kaufman said, "If you look at the ticket in 1972 and look at the ticket at practically every race since then, he runs quite a bit better in Republican areas than many other Democrats. So it's always been a place where he's been able to convince people to vote for him."

    The former chief of staff cited Biden's strong family values among his attributes that appeal to conservatives.

    That could explain why the vice president is diving deeply into conservative strongholds in battleground states to help his ticket win.

    In recent weeks, Biden has campaigned in places that did not swing toward Democrats in 2008 and could offer little chance of doing so this year. Within the span of a few weeks, the vice president visited Fort Myers in Florida's Lee County, Chesterfield in Virginia's Chesterfield County, Fairborn in Ohio's Greene County, and Zanesville in Ohio's Muskingum County, to name a few.

    He's also made recent visits to places like Asheville in North Carolina's Buncombe County, Tamarac in Florida's Broward County and Ottumwa in Iowa's Wapello County -- counties won by the Democratic presidential ticket in 2008 and that offer a repeat chance of success.

    When asked about the vice president's travels, especially to red areas, the campaign demurred.

    "He is beloved where he goes because he's been speaking out forcefully on behalf of the president to move this country forward," the campaign official said. "He is the president's partner and No. 1 surrogate. So nothing makes him happier than going anywhere and everywhere the campaign deploys [him] -- anywhere and everywhere to continue to make the case for the president."

    Political experts offer more frank assessments.

    "You don't want to send your principal to the places where you can't win, said Vavreck of UCLA. "You save the principal for the places you think you can swing."

    McClain of Duke offered, "My analysis would be that if these red places they're going to, the counties, are within states that they hope they can take -- elections are won on the margins.

    "You don't have to pull off a lot of votes. You just have to pull off enough. And so if they're going to counties and cities that are really red, but they figure they have an opportunity or an opening with some segments of that area to kind of turn out those votes and cut down on the margins that they will need coming out of areas -- you know, it's a pretty good strategy."

        Election 2012

      • CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 06:  U.S. President Barack Obama stands on stage with first lady Michelle Obama, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden after his victory speech on election night at McCormick Place November 6, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. Obama won reelection against Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

        A black man is returning to the White House. Four years ago, it was a first, the breaking of a racial barrier. Tuesday night, it was history redux. And more.
      • CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 06:  U.S. President Barack Obama stands on stage after his victory speech at McCormick Place November 6, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. Obama won reelection against Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

        The 2012 presidential election shattered spending records, further polarized a divided country and launched a thousand hashtags.
      • Even though voters indicated to pollsters that their financial situation is the same or worse than it was four years ago, they put their trust in the president.
      • US President Barack Obama addresses a crowd of supporters on stage on election night November 6, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. President Barack Obama swept to re-election Tuesday, forging history again by transcending a slow economic recovery and the high unemployment which haunted his first term to beat Republican Mitt Romney. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad        (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

        The president faces a long and familiar set of challenges after riding a wave of support from moderates, women and minorities to victory.
      • Republicans kept a lock on the U.S. House of Representatives, a crucial victory after the party failed to wrest away the presidency from Barack Obama and the Senate from the Democrats.