5 Things to Watch For in Tonight's Vice Presidential Debate

VP debateToday's VP debate preview piece is brought to you by Sesame Street and the letter A (as in "attack ad"). With that being said, get ready for fight night.

Put the kids to bed, lock the doors, pull down the shades, grab a favorite beverage, finalize the rules for your drinking game and be prepared to witness a good old-fashioned political rumble. As Joe Biden would say, this is a "f---ing big deal." In fact, if there isn't at least one expletive spoken (ahem, Biden) and one fist thrown (ahem Ryan, actually scratch that, Biden again) we'll be surprised.

Tonight, America will witness quite a show because the stakes, frankly speaking, couldn't be higher for both campaigns.

So where does the race stand after last week's biblical disaster of a debate for President Obama? It's just about a true toss-up.

Here is where we diverge -- a bit. While both of us view this race as a toss-up, at least for now, I (Chris speaking) would emphasize the momentum, somewhat slightly, towards Romney, while I (Frank speaking) still have trouble seeing past Obama's stubborn lead in Ohio.

We both agree that the race is quite volatile. We saw just how volatile in the incredible reactions voters had to Romney's exceptional debate performance, and Obama's exceptionally poor performance. The reality is that enough of the electorate can and will move over the course of the next three weeks to secure the margin of victory for either candidate. The remaining debates (tonight's VP debate and the two remaining presidential debates) will decide this election -- as they should. Sorry, admeisters, it's about time substance took center stage. We are now in the midst of a debate-driven election, and that is why what happens tonight will have repercussions for both campaigns.

With respect to tonight's debate, it is all about whether Rep. Ryan builds on Romney's
momentum or whether VP Joe Biden stops him dead cold. Two thing are clear. First, Biden can accept a draw but cannot make a single gaffe (more on that in a bit) or be seen as the loser. Second, Ryan can accept a draw but cannot stumble in a way that puts the Romney ticket on the defensive going into the second presidential debate.

The reality is that while VP debates seldom, if ever, decide a presidential election, this one will matter because there is just too much volatility among the narrow swath of undecided voters and too few days before the next election to afford any stumbles.

So before the fight begins, let's go to the tale of the tape.

Joe BidenVP Joe Biden
Age: 69
Weight: No idea
Reach: Hits hard with a smile
Strength: Empathetic, gregariousness
Weaknesses: Suffers from gaffe-itis (a syndrome wherein you cause severe headaches from putting foot in mouth)
Secret Weapon: Aggressive, Da Zinger. Turns on the passion faster than a Porsche.

Paul RyanRep. Paul Ryan
Age: 42
Weight: Skinnier than both of us
Reach: As far as the numbers will take him
Strength: Rainman-like statistical knowledge (surely you've seen the Tom Cruise movie)
Weakness: Rainman-like statistical knowledge
Secret Weapon: Aggressive, Aw-schucksian (milks the nice guy persona quite well, because he is one). A grandmother's dream.

So here are the five things to look for tonight.

1. Does Biden swing first? You betcha! The VP will lay down the hammer from the first question. He will try and make up for what President Obama didn't do. The danger for the Veep is that there is a fine line between strength/ passion and angry/out-of-control. As long as the Veep doesn't cross that line, he'll be fine. But he only wins the debate if can punch and counterpunch with substance AND style.

2. Does Ryan rise? Ryan's challenge will be to hit back as hard as he gets without sounding wonkish. Ryan has never had a national debate, and he'll be somewhat nervous. But Ryan has faced down the national press corps before, and he knows his subjects cold. If he comes across as both smart and empathetic, it will be a serious problem for Democrats.

3. The Hiss/Cheer Dynamic: Crowd reactions? Will there be any? Will the moderator tell the crowd to not applaud or respond to Biden and Ryan's answers ... or will they be permitted to clap, cheer, hiss, throw bottles (slight exaggeration) or cheese (gross characterization of the Wisconsin congressman)? Make no mistake, crowd reactions can either feed the candidate or completely throw them off. So be sure to listen to what the moderator says at the very beginning.

4. Gaffe and zinger patrol: Who will make the memorable gaffe, and who will have the memorable zinger? Yes, we know that everyone is prepared for a Biden gaffe, but he will come in focused and disciplined. He's also more likely to have the most memorable line of the debate -- as he had the most memorable line of the convention ("Bin Laden is dead and GM is alive"). We also think there will be enough references to "Sesame Street" and to Medicare vouchers to fuel your drinking game.

5. The "Nasty" Factor: Intellectual fights, which is what debates are at their core, can bring out many emotions. The one emotion this one can't bring out is anger. No one wants to see a nasty candidate. Nobody wants to be yelled at by a politician. If you're Biden, you don't want to look unhinged. If you're Ryan, you don't want people think you're being rude and petulant. Each candidate will have to control himself, and by extension control the debate. Bottom line, the first candidate to be seen as nasty loses.

It's clear that there is more pressure on the Veep to perform, but Ryan must rise to the occasion. So what are our predictions? Too close to call right now, but one thing we can predict: It's going to be quite the show, and you won't want to miss it for the world. Now fill your glass...

Joe Biden and Paul Ryan: The Candidates You Don't Know
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5 Things to Watch For in Tonight's Vice Presidential Debate

For years, Biden has been dogged by rumors about his beauty routine, from suggestions that he has had hair plugs to claims that he botoxes his forehead. And as far as his gleaming chompers are concerned, there's even a website, Joe Biden's Teeth, that asks contributors to explain how the sight of the vice president's shining smile has inspired them.

When it comes to improving his body, Ryan takes a more natural approach. A former fitness trainer, the congressman regularly leads about a dozen of his fellow Congressmen and congressional staffers in a grueling, highly-regimented P90X routine.

The son of a car salesman, Biden has long been a fan of American rolling steel, and still fondly remembers one of his first cars -- a 1951 Studebaker. In fact, one of his regrets at being vice president is that the Secret Service won't let him drive his favorite car: a 1967 Corvette.

While in college, Ryan spent his summers working as a traveling salesman for Oscar Meyer. While selling lunchables to local groceries was far from glamorous, the job had one great side benefit: it gave the future Congressman the opportunity to drive the famed Oscar Meyer Weinermobile.

Biden raised eyebrows in 2008, when he responded to claims that Obama was pro-gun control: "Barack Obama ain't taking my shotguns, so don't buy that malarkey," he said. "If he tries to fool with my Beretta, he's got a problem."

A noted bow hunter, Ryan managed to combine his vocation and his hobby by sponsoring a 2008 law that cut taxes on hunting arrows.

Elected to the Senate in 1972, Biden was 30 years old when he took office -- the legal minimum age. He's the sixth-youngest senator in U.S. history.

Elected to the House of Representatives in 1998, Ryan was 28 when he took office, making him the second-youngest congressman at the time.

The first Catholic vice president in U.S. history, Biden was a regular parishioner at St. Joseph Brandywine Catholic church in Greenville, DE; since assuming the vice presidency, he has been seen at Holy Trinity Catholic church in Washington, DC, the same church that John F. Kennedy attended. On the other hand, his stance on abortion has drawn the ire of the church, and Biden has been barred from speaking at Catholic schools in Wilmington, DE.

A former altar boy, Ryan is still attends mass at St. John Vianney Catholic church in Janesville, WI. Ryan also has what some experts have called a "Catholic problem": his budget plans, which cut entitlements and social services, have drawn the ire of Catholic bishops, priests, and scholars at Georgetown University, the nation's oldest Catholic college, who claim that the Congressman budget reflects "the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand (pictured), rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

Given his much-touted Irish heritage, it's hardly surprising that Biden's Secret Service nickname is "Celtic."

Ryan's macho lifestyle, a large part of his mythology, is on display with his Secret Service nickname, "Bowhunter."

An inveterate football player, Biden's first taste of gridiron glory came at Archmere Academy, where he played halfback/wide receiver. He later joined the freshman football team at the University of Delaware.

Although he has become better known for his love of extreme outdoor sports like hunting and fishing, Paul Ryan played on the soccer, skiing and track teams in his high school, as well as a Catholic intramural basketball team.


Chris Kofinis is a Democratic strategist. Frank Luntz is a Republican pollster and strategist. AOL has an elections content partnership with Chris Kofinis and Luntz Global.

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