In the ring with Ryan: What it’s like to debate the VP candidate

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LEXINGTON, Ky.—The year was 1998 and Paul Ryan, then just a 28-year-old newcomer with no electoral experience, faced his first debate for national political office. He had spent most of his early adulthood in Washington, D.C., as a Capitol Hill staffer, and returned to his home in Janesville, Wis., to run for Congress against Democratic Kenosha Alderman Lydia Spottswood. Although he had a few Republican strategists helping him, his mother still drove him to events and handled the campaign's scheduling.

Spottswood, who was 47 at the time, moved to capitalize on Ryan's youth and inexperience during their debates. ''I'm old enough to be his mom," she quipped at one of the debates held in their southern Wisconsin district. Ryan took the swipe in stride and with a smile, according to reports at the time. Despite his age, he was able to spar with the seasoned alderman on the role government plays in abortion, gun control and education. The kid did well enough to win the election, and he has held the seat by winning more than 60 percent of the vote ever since.

During that same time period, a 56-year-old politician named Joe Biden from Delaware was entering his 25th year in the Senate. He had already made one run for president and spent eight years as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Even then, he was considered a veteran lawmaker.

Fourteen years later, in front of millions, the young gun Ryan—who has close to a decade and a half in Congress under his belt and is not nearly as cherub-faced as when he sparred with Spottswood—will go head-to-head against now-Vice President Biden, a man nearly 30 years his senior. For weeks Ryan has been training for the debate against Biden, who first ran for president when Ryan was just barely out of high school. For debate prep, Mitt Romney's campaign tapped a seasoned litigator, former Solicitor General Ted Olson, to play Biden. And Ryan spends much of his limited time off these days with his nose in research books the campaign prepared, say Romney aides. Biden, too, has been getting in fighting shape, taking a week off the campaign trail to undergo intense debate coaching.

Based on interviews with strategists who have watched Ryan debate in person, and with Democrats who have faced him over the years, Biden will likely confront a young, but tenacious debater onstage in Danville, Ky. The congressman's most powerful weapon: his ability to rattle off without a hitch an encyclopedic knowledge of data and statistics.

"That's his comfort zone," said John Heckenlively, a former Democratic congressional candidate who challenged and debated Ryan in 2010. "He'll generally fall back on facts and figures, and he likes to throw numbers out there. He has a lot of statistics he's memorized over the years."

Still, this skill could be a double-edged sword. Too much of an emphasis on wonky numbers could hurt Ryan if he gets bogged down in the weeds and the audience tunes out.

But despite the experience gap between the two, Heckenlively warns that the vice president should not make age an issue at the debate. It wasn't effective enough to knock Ryan out in 1998, and it could backfire.

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"If Biden is smart, he should probably go out of his way to treat Ryan with respect," he said. "There's a dramatic age difference between these two guys. If Biden comes off as the old guy lecturing the kid, that might actually generate some sympathy for Ryan."

The precocious congressman obviously lacks the national debate stage experience that Biden has, and Romney campaign aides are always the first to note this—a classic effort to manage expectations. Still, they appear confident that Ryan has command of the subjects.

"It's less about learning the issues—he's got a strong background in the issues from his years in Congress," said a Romney campaign staffer who didn't want to be named when speaking about the candidate, but has traveled with Ryan since he was first tapped for the vice presidential slot in August. "It's more learning about the most effective way to debate."

Indeed, Ryan has undergone his own unofficial debate school crash course since he was tapped as House Budget Chairman nearly two years ago. As the champion of the Republican's flagship policy proposal, Ryan has largely become the face of the Republican Party, a role that has pitted him against some of the most high-profile Democrats in the country, including President Barack Obama himself.

The challenge, as Romney's aides point out, is communicating his ideas when up against an incumbent who has mastered the art of connecting with people. Ryan may appeal to the brain, but Biden goes straight for the heart. And the gut.

But longtime observers of Ryan note that he has held more than 500 town hall meetings with constituents in his district, honing an ability to explain the ideas he debates in Washington sans Beltway jargon.

"He can take very complex, wonky and frankly scary things in terms of some of the tough decisions that need to be made and boil them down in the kind of language that guys like me can understand," said Wisconsin-based Republican strategist Mark Graul. "It has much more meaning and value to people."

Brian Christianson, a Republican strategist in Chicago, was the first person to help prepare Ryan for a debate in 1998. Christianson led Ryan through daily preparations for his debates with Spottswood, supplying him with thick, three-ring policy position binders and VHS tapes of Spottswood's past performances. After long days of practice, Ryan often refused to call it quits. He took the materials home and studied through the night, Christianson said.

"He's like an NFL quarterback," he said of Ryan's debate style. "He knows how to read defenses, and he knows what's coming at him."

Ryan's level of preparation and ability to memorize obscure data points mean Biden must come prepared with his own arsenal of facts, said Marge Krupp, a Wisconsin college professor who ran for Ryan's House seat in 2008. But, she said, Biden has a major opportunity at the debate—if he does his homework—to counter Ryan's data-based strategy because he speaks in "half-truths."

"You have to know your numbers to be able to challenge him," Krupp said. "He's kind of known to be one who pins Jell-O to the wall with his facts. Or lack thereof. He would pull a half-truth with me, and then I'd be ready for him the next time to say, 'Hey, this is baloney.'"

Strategists from both sides advise the candidates to go on the offensive: Republicans say Ryan should force Biden into a discussion about the effectiveness of Obama's policies since he was first elected in 2008; and Democrats want to see Biden challenge Ryan on his budget proposal, especially the parts Romney has fully embraced.

While challengers like Krupp had the opportunity to debate Ryan more than once, Biden doesn't have that luxury.

He gets one shot.

And so does Ryan.

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