VP debates often unpredictable, but not unmeaningful

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by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist SCOTT GUEST

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

kvue.com

Posted on October 11, 2012 at 6:36 PM

Updated Thursday, Oct 11 at 7:04 PM

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AUSTIN -- If the presidential debate is a boxing match, the vice presidential debate could be compared to a mixed martial arts cage fight. Unlike the more conventional presidential headliners, the stars of the undercard often feel freer to grapple and exchange questionable shots.

From the silliness of Adm. James Stockdale's (I) "Why am I here?" to the seriousness of Sen. Bob Dole's (R-KS) claim that "Democrat wars" killed "enough to fill the city of Detroit," vice presidential encounters can be unpredictable. Runningmates have often become the de facto lead attacker in modern political campaigns, and their head-to-head clashes have been full of surprises.

"The fact that they have a gay daughter, the fact that they embrace her, it's a wonderful thing," Sen. John Edwards (D-SC) said while answering a question regarding same-sex marriage in 2004, a reference to Republican Vice-President Dick Cheney's daughter that many at the time criticized as over the line.

"The vice-presidential debates really don't move the needle," said St. Edward's University Political Science Professor Brian Smith. "What they're able to do is sometimes interject something new into the campaign, meaning the idea of competence of the vice-president, or sometimes a new line of attack."

"Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy," retorted Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-TX) after Sen. Dan Quayle (R-IN) compared his experience to John F. Kennedy's prior to the latter's presidency. The sting opened a new line of attack for the presidential campaign of Gov. Michael Dukakis (D-MA), taking aim at his presidential opponent's age and suggesting Quayle could possibly be called upon to serve as president.

Even the most compelling matchups can also fall flat. "Say it ain't, Joe," was one of the few memorable lines from the 2008 debate between Sen. Joe Biden (D-PA) and Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK). The debate was widely watched as both sides hyped the propensity for either of the candidates to commit a serious gaffe or misstep.

"We expected this great mixed martial arts battle between Biden and Palin," recalled Smith. "But at the end of the day, it was very, very boring. It was almost like a regular boxing match where the two guys just kind of held onto each other for 15, 12 rounds."

Thursday night's showdown in Danville, Kentucky will be the first national debate for Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), who's spent weeks preparing to face his seasoned opponent.

"He has to keep Romney's momentum going," said Smith. "The best way to do that is to follow Romney's line of attack and don't make any mistakes of your own that then become part of the dialog."

A veteran of the debate stage, Vice President Joe Biden faces the challenge of re-energizing the Democratic ticket's message.

"He needs to keep his answers short," said Smith. "The longer Biden talks, the more trouble he gets himself into. What he just needs to do is try to say, 'Things under President Obama are going to be better than they will under Romney.' If he keeps with that message, he'll be fine."

The victory will go to who gets their message out the best.

The debate will air on KVUE at 8 p.m. and stream live here on KVUE.com.

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