(The Root) — It appears that the question of “Do debates actually matter?” has finally been settled, thanks to the fallout from the first 2012 presidential debate last week. Since his performance, Mitt Romney has enjoyed a surge in polls and an improvement in voter perception of him. As a result, the pressure is on in all upcoming debates, with the presidential race so close that even the smallest misstep could make a big difference.
Demonstrating that the Obama campaign appreciates what’s at stake, according to some sources, Vice President Joe Biden took a week away from the campaign trail to prepare for tonight’s debate. So with that in mind, below are three things that each participant — Biden and his opponent, Rep. Paul Ryan — needs to do if he wants to help — and not hurt — his ticket.
1. Keep your foot out of your mouth.
I would argue that Biden is one of the media’s favorite political figures in recent memory, for the very same reason that he probably has some Democrats nervous about his performance tonight: The man is a walking, talking gaffe machine. There are pages devoted to his gaffes, but here are a few highlights: saying the “f-word” near a hot mic, making a politically incorrect remark about “chains” before a black audience that led to days of negative coverage by conservatives — and then there was the time he said the president has “a big stick.” I think the Democrats will breathe a sigh of relief if he gets through tonight’s debate without adding to this list.
2. Don’t seem condescending.
We Americans are a funny bunch. We want leaders we think are competent but who are also relatable and don’t seem like know-it-alls. Former Vice President Al Gore received horrible reviews for his debate performance against then-Gov. George W. Bush for body language, mannerisms and tone that seemed to scream “You idiot!” every time Bush spoke. You can think it, but don’t show it, because Americans may not want to elect a so-called “idiot,” but they want to elect a know-it-all even less.
3. Attack without seeming mean.
The role of the vice presidential candidate is often to play the bad cop to the presidential candidate’s good cop. The vice presidential candidate is supposed to be the attack dog so that the presidential candidate can look like everybody’s favorite, friendly Labrador retriever. President Obama has said he was “too polite” during his last debate. We rarely have to worry about that with Biden. But he has to be careful about bending so far over the opposite direction that he alienates voters by appearing to beat up on Ryan — who looks like every middle-aged mom’s favorite son.
1. Convey empathy.
Ryan has taken endless flak for the perception that his budget proposals will harm the poor and elderly. Coverage of his running mate’s “47 percent” comment didn’t help the perception that they may make up the least empathetic ticket ever to seek higher office. Therefore it is essential that Ryan convey empathy during the debate and somehow convince voters that “it’s not that I don’t care about poor people. I just believe in helping them in a different way than my opponents.” A tough sell, but one he must make if he doesn’t want to alienate moderate voters tonight.
2. Convince voters you’re not an extremist.
This is another tough sell, but a necessary one. Ryan has had to tamp down some of his own political rhetoric since joining the ticket because it is not in step with his running mate and is perceived to be controversial. For instance, Ryan does not believe in a rape or incest exemption when it comes to restricting abortion rights, saying that he doesn’t believe “the method of conception” should determine such an issue. But he has been relatively mum on this subject recently, saying that he will support Romney’s position on such issues. If he gets challenged on his previous statements tonight, however, that will put him in a particularly tough spot, especially since the GOP has been negatively affected by perceptions that the party is extreme on women’s reproductive issues this election cycle.
3. Don’t seem intimidated.
One of the most famous moments in campaign-debate history was when vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen delivered the zinger to end all zingers during the 1988 debate against Dan Quayle, who was decades younger. When he told the young senator, “You’re no Jack Kennedy,” it was the equivalent of saying, “You are not ready for prime time; now have a seat, little guy.” Though Quayle’s ticket won that year, Quayle never shook the perception that he wasn’t ready for prime time and was constantly mocked throughout his four years as vice president. Ryan needs to make it clear from the get-go that while Biden may have an advantage in terms of years of experience, Ryan can still hang tough with him in terms of knowledge.