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Biden-Ryan debate: why it doesn’t matter, and why it does (+video)

Vice presidential debates have no history of swinging presidential races. But after President Obama's subpar performance last week, Vice President Joe Biden faces pressure Thursday night.

By Staff writer / October 11, 2012

A worker passes under relief sculpture of Vice President Joe Biden (l.) and Republican vice presidential candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, in preparation for the Vice Presidential debate at Centre College, on Wednesday in Danville, Ky. The debate is schedule for Thursday.

Eric Gay/AP

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Washington

Vice presidential debates are usually just a curiosity. The two people on stage are the understudies, not the tops of their tickets. Voters vote for president, not vice president. And despite the history of memorable zingers in veep debates – see Democrat Lloyd Bentsen telling Republican Dan Quayle in 1988, “You’re no Jack Kennedy” – these showdowns of No. 2’s have no history of swinging a presidential race.

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Monitor Correspondent Liz Marlantes has some thoughts on how vice presidential debates don't matter.

As such, Thursday night’s debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan almost certainly won’t directly affect the outcome of the race. But after last week’s first presidential debate, in which President Obama was widely perceived to have delivered a subpar performance, the heat is on Mr. Biden to halt the Romney-Ryan ticket’s momentum.

The latest poll average on Real Clear Politics shows GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney now ahead of President Obama by 0.8 percentage points – well within the margin of error, but still a significant reversal from Mr. Obama’s 4.3 percent lead on Sept. 29. By the Oct. 3 debate, Obama’s lead had already begun narrowing, and the Obama campaign insists the race was always going to be close, but there’s no denying that Biden is under pressure to perform well Thursday.

“It will be a setup for the next presidential debate,” says Democratic strategist Peter Fenn. “Biden needs to lay out the specifics of where Romney-Ryan goes wrong, and where they [Obama-Biden] go right.”

Biden will need to go on the offensive, Mr. Fenn says, not just in style but also "in substance and in clarity with the difference in their two positions.”

One flashpoint is likely to be Medicare – the national health insurance program for seniors that is the largest contributor to long-term federal deficits. Congressman Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, is author of a plan that would change Medicare from a fee-for-service setup to a system of “premium support.” Biden calls it a plan to “voucherize” Medicare, forcing seniors over time to pay a growing share of their health-care costs out of pocket.

The Romney plan, a different version of Ryan’s, also moves Medicare to “premium support,” but Mr. Romney and Ryan maintain that by encouraging more private-sector competition among insurance plans, the costs would come down. They would also add means testing, providing less support to wealthier seniors and more to the less wealthy.

If Biden is clever, he can tie Ryan down on the details, at times vague, of the Romney-Ryan plan. In return, watch for Ryan’s mastery of all things budgetary and his skill on the stump in talking through budget matters in an accessible way. Ryan is sure to bring his Medicare-recipient mother, Betty Ryan Douglas, into the discussion, as a living, breathing example of why he wants to save Medicare, not destroy it, as the Democrats say the Romney-Ryan plan would end up doing.

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