Biden's Job In VP Debate Is To Change The Narrative

Thursday night may be Representative Paul Ryan's first debate on a national television stage, but Vice President Joe Biden is an old hand. Four years ago he debated Sarah Palin, and before that he was on stage in the presidential primaries.

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Yesterday on the program we reported on Paul Ryan's debating style. We're going to do the same now for his opponent, Vice President Biden, who's an experienced debater. Here's NPR's Brian Naylor.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Joe Biden has been pilloried by the right as a gas machine. He's been parodied by The Onion as a bare-chested, Trans Am driving ladies man. But when it comes to debating, the vice president is no joke. He's been around the block, as he might tell you, literally. Alan Schroeder is a journalism professor at Northeastern University and author of "Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High Risk TV." Schroeder says Biden is a skilled debater.

ALAN SCHROEDER: Although it is true that he's had his share of gaffes, a lot of that, it seems to me, has taken place in a context other than debates in front of friendly crowds where he feels comfortable and maybe lets his guard down a little. I think in the debate he's really engaged in the moment.

NAYLOR: Biden's biggest debate stage was four years ago when he faced off with then GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. More than 70 million watched, more than watched the presidential debates that year. Many were, no doubt, curious about Palin and curious about how Biden would deal with her. Schroeder says Biden did what he needed to do.

SCHROEDER: With Palin, he was really very gracious. He did not do anything that in any way was condescending to her or that pointed out the vast difference in their level of experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED DEBATE)

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Look, I agree with the governor. She imposed a windfall profits tax up there in Alaska. That's what Barack Obama and I want to do. We want to be able to do for all of you Americans, give you back a thousand bucks like she's been able to give back money to her folks back there.

NAYLOR: Biden also debated his rivals for the 2008 presidential nomination some 14 times before dropping out of the contest. He displayed a command of the facts and, says Schroeder, humor.

SCHROEDER: There is a moment where's he's asked this question about, you know, given that you have this reputation for being long-winded, could you do the job of president and be able not to talk about it?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED DEBATE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Can you reassure voters in this country that you would have the discipline you would need on the world stage, Senator?

BIDEN: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Thank you, Senator Biden.

NAYLOR: And Biden is responsible for what Schroeder calls one of the classic debate soundbites of all time, a put-down of Rudy Giuliani.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED DEBATE)

BIDEN: Rudy Giuliani, I mean, think about it. Rudy Giuliani, there's two - there's only three things he mentions in a sentence, a noun and a verb and 9/11. I mean, there's nothing else. There's nothing else. And I mean it sincerely.

NAYLOR: One of Biden's strength as a candidate is his empathy and an ability to relate to middle class voters. That, too, was on display in his debate four years ago with Sarah Palin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED DEBATE)

BIDEN: Look, I understand what it's like to be a single parent. When my wife and daughter died and my two sons were gravely injured, I understand what it's like as a parent to wonder what it's like if you're kid's gonna make it. I understand what it's like to sit around at the kitchen table with a father who says, I got to leave, champ, because there's no jobs here.

NAYLOR: The importance of tonight's debate for Democrats has been magnified by the widely panned performance of President Obama in his debate with Mitt Romney last week. Biden's mission in tonight's forum is to change the narrative, says Joel Goldstein, who studies the vice presidency at St. Louis University. And in one respect, Goldstein says Biden has an advantage, talking up the president, that Paul Ryan doesn't have with Romney.

JOEL GOLDSTEIN: Biden is in a better position, I think, to defend and to sell Obama than Ryan is. Biden can talk about the fact that he's been working with him for four years. He's sat there in the situation room and so forth, whereas Ryan really has two months of association to draw from.

NAYLOR: Biden is also likely to take on Ryan over his budget and tax proposals, but his biggest challenge tonight may simply be to do no further harm to the president's chances on Election Day. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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