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

VP debate
VP debate

Today'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 Biden
Joe Biden

VP 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 Ryan
Paul Ryan

Rep. 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...


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.