Close to 70 million people watched the first presidential debate last week between President Obama and Mitt Romney. (And, a record 10.5 million of them watched on Fox News.)
Thursday’s one and only vice presidential debate is also likely to draw record numbers of viewers. After last week’s debate, the race for the White House changed to the advantage of Mitt Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan. Historically, debates are not game changers. But this year may be different.
That’s why this week’s debate is so interesting. There is enormous pressure on Vice President Joe Biden, and Congressman Paul Ryan as they take the stage in Danville, Kentucky this week at Centre College. Biden wants to regain the momentum that was lost for his ticket while Ryan’s job is to keep his team’s momentum going.
Of the two candidates, Vice President Biden has the heavier lift. He will be in full damage control mode as he tries to the president’s slide in the polls since the president’s widely panned debate performance.
I strongly disagreed with the perception that Romney won so decisively, that perception – largely thanks to on-going criticism from left-wing pundits -- has been allowed to fester and grow to the detriment of the Obama campaign. And in politics, perception is reality.
Historically, debates are not game changers. But this year may be different.
Biden has the ability to turn things around for his boss. A recent Pew poll shows there are no high expectations for Biden in this debate and the public has a more negative than positive view of the vice president. But remember that the single politician who drew the biggest audience for any speech at either of the two conventions this summer was Joe Biden.
Americans find him interesting; even his critics want to see if he garbles some language.
For this debate, Biden’s challenge will be to do the job that Obama should have done last week. In his folksy style he will have to challenge Romney – through Ryan -- on some of the fallacies and distortions that Romney used so successfully against President Obama. He needs to do this without using the dreaded “L” word (Liar) and not allowing Ryan to use his signature dodge “It would take too long for me to explain the math.”
Last month, my colleague Chris Wallace, host of "Fox News Sunday," tried very hard to pin Ryan down on the numbers for his tax cut plan asking the Wisconsin lawmaker repeatedly how much would it cost and how specifically would he pay for it.
Ryan did not have an answer beyond limiting tax deductions and closing loopholes and he wouldn’t even say which ones. Ryan got testy with Wallace. He didn’t have time to explain the numbers, he said with some irritation. This week, Ryan abruptly ended an interview with a local TV news reporter in Flint, Michigan after he pressed him for specifics about his own proposed budget cuts would affect the people of Flint. He cannot lose his cool in this debate.
William Gale, co-director of the non-partisan Tax Policy Center summed up the problem with Romney-Ryan’s tax plan like this:
“Suppose Governor Romney said that he wants to drive a car from Boston to Los Angeles in 15 hours. And suppose some analysts employed tools of arithmetic to conclude that "If Governor Romney wants to drive from Boston to LA in 15 hours, it is mathematically impossible to avoid speeding." After all, the drive from LA to Boston is about 3,000 miles, so to take only 15 hours would require an average of 200 miles per hour. Certainly other road trips are possible -- but the particular one proposed here is not.”
Vice President Biden could do worse than to crib that line (with attribution, of course) to make the point about how implausible his opponents plans really are. The numbers are dense and they are complicated – but they are also on Obama’s side. He and his team in Chicago need to use their skills as political communicators to make that clear and understandable to the average voter in Ohio. Metaphor? Analogy? Anecdote? Take your pick of rhetorical device but they must do something and do it quick.
Biden can’t come off as condescending to Paul Ryan, who is 27 years his junior. Style and perception count big in debates – sometimes more than the facts. So Biden can’t look like he is lecturing Ryan or like a crotchety old man yelling at a young boy for treading on his lawn. If that is the image people take away from the debate, Biden will have lost.
This scenario is actually very similar to his challenge in 2008 when he debated Sarah Palin. He made his points forcefully and directed all of his criticism at the top of the ticket, John McCain. He did not patronize the charismatic, young Alaska governor and there was not an hint of sexism in his presentation – which was a major concern heading into that debate.
Two weeks ago it looked as if Obama would coast to re-election. One week later, Romney looks to be charging back to make this a very close race.
A good performance by Ryan or Biden will make a big difference as the two presidential contenders get ready to for their much anticipated second debate next week. That’s why this vice presidential debate is far hotter than any that came before.
Juan Williams is a Fox News political analyst. He is the author of several books including "Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America--and What We Can Do About It" and "Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate."