This vice-presidential debate is way more important than you think

It’s up to Biden to regain the advantage for the Democratic duo
Right: Vice President Joe Biden (Jason Reed/Reuters); Left: Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Normally, the vice presidential debate is a secondary news event. After all, voters choose the top of the ticket on election day. Vice presidential nominees are mostly meant to balance the duo.

The only memorable vice presidential debate moment in recent memory occurred in 1988, when Democratic nominee Sen. Lloyd Bentsen delivered a masterful retort to Republican challenger Sen. Dan Quayle who had tried to equate his comparative young age of 42 with John F. Kennedy’s quest for the presidency at a similar age. Said Bentsen to Quayle: “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Still, the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket lost the contest to the Bush-Quayle duo. So much for vice presidential debates and their impact on the election’s outcome.

This debate may be different, though. It is already creating more hype than usual in light of President Obama’s (under) performance on Oct. 3. Polls clearly indicate Americans think Romney won the first debate and that Obama’s advantage is narrowing . Some even have Romney in the lead.

Joe Biden is an experienced debater on the national stage while Republican Paul Ryan’s experience doesn’t go much beyond the House of Representatives. A strong performance by Biden could pave the way for an Obama “comeback” on the second presidential debate on Oct. 16. Considering that Ryan is seen as the darling of the conservative movement with many policies and writings on the record, Biden has a lot of material to draw from and Romney won’t be able to easily dissociate himself from his running mate.

While Obama’s odd performance continues to mystify, the key lesson for the Obama-Biden ticket is to focus on drawig clear differences, and challenging any improvised policy reversals on the debate stage. Romney pulled an “etch a sketch” and moved to the center, and it seemed to have caught Obama by surprise. This shouldn’t happen to the more combative and partisan Biden.

Paul Ryan may be by far a stronger vice presidential nominee than Sarah Palin was in 2008, but, to date, his performance on the campaign trail lacks both energy and synergy with Romney. In 2008, Palin was something of a mystery for Biden. He knew she was conservative, but her appeal went beyond her record as governor, and her knowledge—or lack thereof—of the issues.  This time around, Biden knows exactly where Ryan stands on budget policy proposals and key Democratic policies such as Medicare and Obamacare. There should be no surprises—and there should be no holding back by of the vice president.

That, at least, is the hope among the Democratic faithful. They clearly need a strong performance. The Obama-Biden record is highly defendable, and the direction the Democratic ticket is advocating for the next four years is far different from that proposed by their opponents. All Biden needs to show is clarity and conviction, which were so sorely lacking in the Obama-Romney showdown.

Granted, everyone knows that the vice president can be a loose cannon and this is surely a worry for the Obama campaign team. However, if he is able to set the table for Obama in the town hall debate next week, he will have done more than enough to earn the two a second term.