Republican leaders are trying to beat down high expectations for their vice presidential nominee, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), before his unusually high-stakes debate against Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday. Rank-and-file Republicans aren't buying it, and neither is the wider public, if pre-debate polls are to be believed. "Ryan is no slouch," says Holly Robichaud at the Boston Herald. "But the expectation game for him is so high the Jolly Green Giant couldn't get over it." Here, six ideas for how the seven-term congressman can beat Biden and keep the Mitt Romney momentum going:
1. Outshine Biden on the middle class
Republicans aren't wrong about Ryan: "Everyone knows he is a formidable and unflappable debater," says Ramesh Ponnuru at Bloomberg View, and Romney's No. 2 "knows the ins and outs of domestic policy at least as well as Biden, and speaks more authoritatively about them." But what few Democrats understand is that "Ryan has been at least as effective as Biden in making a blue-collar case for his party's ideas." Biden will pull out his Regular Joe schtick — the vice president seems to believe "he has some special gift for connecting with middle-class voters" — but Ryan can turn the tables and solidify Romney's gains with lower-income white voters.
2. Don't get too wonky
Biden's obvious weak spot is his propensity to commit gaffes, and Ryan should try to encourage him there, says Dan Balz at The Washington Post. But "Ryan has several possible weaknesses," too. The most dangerous in the debate is that he "could fall into wonk-talk." His command of policy will be an asset, but "what works on the House floor or during an inside-the-Beltway debate won't necessarily work with a television audience of 50 million or more."
3. Be prepared to battle over Medicare
"The vice presidential encounter could hinge on one topic: Medicare," says Reuters' Andy Sullivan. And Ryan should expect Biden to "come out swinging" on the subject. Ryan's plan to transform the popular entitlement into a private-insurance voucher program has been partly adopted by Romney, and Democrats have been hammering the GOP ticket on it. But Ryan "has years of experience selling conservative ideas to voters who are not predisposed to liking them," and if he can turn his idea into a political winner on Thursday, both he and Romney will reap a huge bounty.
4. Ignore Biden and attack Obama
Attacking Ryan on Medicare and Medicaid may be "Biden's best strategic plan for the debate," says David Frum at The Daily Beast. "Ryan's best strategic plan should be equally obvious: Do not cooperate with the vice president." When Biden tries to draw him into a prolonged discussion on health care entitlements, Ryan should "think like a fencer: parry on Medicare; lunge at the stimulus." President Obama has an actual record to defend, and Ryan can't "let Biden get away with" pretending that he's not running as the incumbent.
5. Work the ref
ABC's Martha Raddatz, the moderator of the debate, is "a proven partisan, a dependable left-wing filter," like everyone else in the mainstream media, says Joel Pollak at Breitbart's Big Government. So "Ryan must — as Romney did — mock the moderator, gently." This worked great for Newt Gingrich in the GOP primary debates, but "even Democrats distrust the media, and enjoy seeing them taken down a peg." Roughing up the moderator is "a fine art, and Ryan will have to wait for the right moment." Inevitably "a moment will come when she will reveal her bias," and Ryan should pounce.
6. Don't go rogue
Ryan wasn't "plucked from obscurity to fill out a national ticket," says The Washington Post's Balz. "His peers consider him the intellectual leader of the Republican Party," and so he personally has a lot at stake in the debate — including hopes of being "a possible presidential candidate in 2016 if Romney loses." Biden will likely try to mine that tension. "If I was prepping against Ryan, I would be looking for issues that Romney and Ryan disagree on and try and pull out Ryan the wonk, as opposed to Ryan the running mate," a top GOP strategist tells Reuters — so "Ryan's challenge will be to make an appealing case for his worldview while making clear that Romney is the head of the ticket and running on his own platform."
Read more political coverage at The Week's 2012 Election Center.