Who Will Win Tonight's Debate?

An expert weighs in on the art of vice presidential debating
Preparations are made ahead of the vice presidential debate at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It’s difficult to talk about your beliefs without talking about yourself. But that’s exactly what Vice President Joe Biden and Representative Paul Ryan will have to do tonight during the vice presidential debate in Kentucky. Democrats are looking to Biden to add sheen to President Obama’s dreary showing in Colorado last week, while Republicans just hope Ryan can keep the momentum going. But the 2012 election isn’t focused on them—and the debate shouldn’t be, either. Bloomberg Businessweek’s Claire Suddath spoke to longtime campaign coach Brett O’Donnell, who prepared Mitt Romney for the presidential primary debates in Florida, about just how tricky that is.

Bloomberg Businessweek: What does a good vice president debate accomplish?
Brett O’Donnell: Two things. A successful vice presidential debate is another step in advancing the message of the campaign. Each campaign is made up of both of these men and the vice presidential debate should represent that overall message.

The second thing is that the debate should convince the public that the person is ready to serve as president should that situation arise.

Biden and Ryan are going to try to claim—or, in Biden’s case, reclaim—the spotlight, but they’ve got to shine it on their respective running mates. That’s a very hard, very subtle thing to do. How do you do it?
The vice president has to accurately represent the policies of the president, and Congressman Ryan has to do the same for the policies of Governor Romney. It’s a little harder now for Ryan because he’s had a relatively short amount of time to learn all of the governor’s policies.

How much can Biden really do to overcome Obama’s lackluster performance?
The pressure is really on Biden. I’m sure the president called him and said, “You’ve got to make sure you’re on your game because we’ve got to play catch-up.” That makes it more difficult on the vice president. In the debate he did with Sarah Palin, he was very measured, very calm, he didn’t attack her, he wasn’t really aggressive. And now he’s being called on to do something that is more difficult for him and a place where he can make more mistakes.

What’s the challenge for Ryan?
This is the first time he’s been on a stage this big. So for him, it’s about establishing presence and confidence. Certainly Ryan is extremely knowledgeable on the most important point in this election, the economy. So he’ll have the knowledge part down. He just needs to make sure he’s comfortable and ready to perform well when there are 60-70 million people watching.

Before the last debate, Romney was said to be “preparing zingers” for Obama. I’m sure this is a well-known practice, but how well does it work?
Last week wasn’t full of zingers, but there were times when Romney could encapsulate an argument with one line. He created a moment, for instance, with the line that he used on the president, “You’re entitled to your own house, your own plane, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.” It’s not about thinking about sharp-witted or cutting lines, but ways that help advance your message and get the attention of your audience.

Who was the best at this practice?
Ronald Reagan was the master of it. In the 1980 debates with Jimmy Carter, his “There you go again” line highlighted a problem that Carter was having on the policy front. Or, in 1984, when he used the line “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience” to address the fact that some people thought he was too old to be president.

What are your overall expectations for tonight?
If Ryan can pin the failure of the economy on the president and vice president, that’s pretty good ground. If either person gets too defensive, then that can cause a problem. The one thing going for the vice president is that he’s done this a lot. He’s run for president a couple times, he’s been in multiple debates, he’s debated Barack Obama. He’s got experience and experience matters.

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