Vice-presidential debates are frequently dismissed as a sideshow, but Thursday's clash between Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan is being billed as a potential game-changer. Democrats are looking to Biden — a gaffe-prone but experienced debater — to reverse President Obama's slide in the polls since his widely criticized performance in last week's presidential debate. Republicans are counting on Ryan — an able budget wonk but relative newcomer to the national campaign stage — to keep Romney's momentum alive. History proves that vice presidential debates might not always tip the scales, but they can help a ticket leave an indelible impression. Here, seven of the most memorable exchanges between VP candidates:
1. 2008: Palin asks, "Can I call you Joe?"
Joe Biden has been here before. In 2008, he debated another young rising GOP star: Sarah Palin. Then Alaska governor, Palin went into the debate trying to counter the image she had left as an uninformed novice in widely panned TV interviews. Her task was to prove she was worthy of high office. "She did not implode. In this limited sense, she definitely won," said Suzanne Garment at Forbes. She cemented her folksy image, too, by walking on stage and asking Biden, "Can I call you Joe?" But she also decided to "evade certain questions and give vague responses to others," says Julian Zelizer at CNN, which only "continued to fuel discussion as to whether she was out of her league."
2. 2004: Cheney deflects an awkward attack from Edwards
Ryan might want to go to the video of the 2004 debate for a lesson in what not to do if you're a photogenic, young rising star facing off with a longtime Washington veteran. In 2004, Sen. John Edwards, then a darling of his party and the running mate of Sen. John Kerry, brought up Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter, who is gay, to challenge the GOP ticket's opposition to rights for same-sex couples. Cheney's response was short and sweet: "Let me simply thank the senator for the kind words he said about my family and our daughter." Edwards' tactic "left many uncomfortable," says Zelizer at CNN. Cheney's parry made his rival look "like a lightweight, and many came away more skeptical about whether he could handle the pressures of the presidency." Click here to view that exchange.
3. 1996: Al Gore... eco-comedian?
Vice President Al Gore and his GOP challenger, Jack Kemp, faced off in a debate that featured partisan sniping about the economy. Kemp, a football star in his younger days, said Bill Clinton's tax cut plan was an un-American attempt at "social engineering." Gore charged that Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole's "risky $550 billion tax scheme would blow a hole in the deficit." Perhaps anticipating the slugfest, Gore opened with a joke poking fun at his own wonkiness. "I'd like to start by offering you a deal, Jack," Gore said rather robotically. "If you won't use any football stories, I won't tell any of my warm and humorous stories about chlorofluorocarbon abatement." Kemp laughed: "It's a deal. I can't even pronounce it."
4. 1992: Adm. Stockdale's existential crisis
Retired vice admiral James Stockdale, a Vietnam war hero, was a political unknown when he agreed to be independent candidate Ross Perot's running mate. Stockdale, says Sophie Quinton at the National Journal, tried to reach into his philosophy background to deliver a memorable opening line. "Who am I? Why am I here?" The "oddball opening" got laughs — but partly because many viewers were curious themselves what the Medal of Honor winner was doing on the debate stage.
5. 1988: Bentsen's brutal putdown of Quayle
The debate between the running mates of Democrat Michael Dukakis and Republican George H.W. Bush produced what might be the most memorable line in the history of vice-presidential debates. The GOP veep candidate, Sen. Dan Quayle, tried to deflect criticism that he was young and unprepared, saying that he had "as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency." His rival, longtime Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, replied: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy." The audience erupted in applause, and Quayle only seemed to cement his defeat when he complained: "That was really uncalled for, senator."
6. 1984: Ferraro parries Bush's attack
Geraldine Ferraro "made history by becoming the first woman to run for vice president," says Sean Sullivan at The Washington Post. "She also etched her debate performance in the history books when she rebutted a Bush attack on foreign policy with a sharp elbow of her own." Bush tried to school her in foreign policy, starting a reply by saying, "Let me help you, Ms. Ferraro, with the difference between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon." When he finished, Ferraro pounced, saying, "I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy."
7. 1976: Dole pins all wars on Democrats
In the first televised vice-presidential debate, GOP veep hopeful Bob Dole was asked to comment on President Gerald Ford's 1974 pardon of Richard Nixon. Dole said it was no longer a relevant issue, any more than the Vietnam war would be. Dole then fired off a "suspiciously off-the-cuff calculation" that 1.6 million Americans had died in the 20th century's "Democrat wars," says Nick Gillespie at Reason. In an inept attempt to turn it into a zinger, he said the toll was "enough to fill the city of Detroit." Unfortunately, we probably can't count on "anything as remotely entertaining as 1976's theater of the absurd" this year.