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Congress Takes Center Stage in VP Debate

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (above) and Vice President Joseph Biden have a combined 53 years of experience on Capitol Hill. Congress is expected to play a larger role in their debate than it did in last week's presidential debate.

The presidential candidates uttered “Congress” just four times during their first debate last week.

That probably won’t be the case on Thursday night, when two Capitol Hill veterans — Vice President Joseph Biden and House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan — meet for the sole vice presidential debate.

“Congress will play a larger role because the players involved have ties to Congress,” said Ron Bonjean, a former top Capitol Hill aide and Republican consultant. “Congress will probably be drawn into the VP debate because of issues facing it, such as the fiscal cliff, Medicare, the economy and the role of government.”

There are 53 years of combined Capitol Hill experience between the No. 2’s on the tickets. Biden served in the Senate for six terms, and Ryan’s Congressional career spans 17 years, including his staffer gigs.

Compare that figure with the top of the ticket: Obama served in the Senate for four years, and Romney has never been on the Congressional payroll.

Democrats hope this will play in their favor. For more than a year, party operatives have banked on Ryan’s budget proposal as the perfect ammunition against Republicans down the ballot.

“I think that it’s going to be very hard for Ryan to pretend that his budget doesn’t exist and that his budget isn’t the de facto policy of the Republicans Party,” one Democratic aide on Capitol Hill said. “All of that stuff is going to be very hard for him to ‘Etch A Sketch’ away.”

What’s more, they are counting on an aggressive Biden performance to mitigate the president’s lackluster showing in the first debate. The aide said that a favorite D.C. parlor game is wondering when Biden “is going to put his foot in his mouth and shoot it,” but “the guy knows how to debate.”

But the occasion also gives Ryan perhaps his best platform to sell himself along with his and Romney’s vision — and Romney’s performance last week shows how one effective performance can move polls.

“For Ryan, the key is to stay on offense,” Bonjean said. 

House Democrats will implement rapid response for the debate, targeting GOP candidates on proposed Medicare cuts under the Ryan budget.

“It will be a good connector with what people are seeing on TV and in the mail in Congressional races,” said John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster.

House Republicans don’t seem too worried about that strategy. Like Romney in last week’s debate, they are just as eager as the Democrats to talk about Medicare. 

“No one better understands or articulates these issues than Ryan,” a top National Republican Congressional Committee aide explained.

Coming off Romney’s performance and in full knowledge of Biden’s tendency to commit verbal faux pas, the Ryan camp is doing its best to temper expectations.

Ryan’s camp is more than aware that Biden has a ton of experience, including 18 presidential and vice presidential debates in his career, 14 of which were in the 2008 campaign. His tendency toward gaffes tends to arise more on the campaign trail than in debates.

“Joe Biden is as experienced a debater as anyone in national politics, and he has a deep résumé in domestic policy and foreign affairs,” spokesman Brendan Buck said. “This is Congressman Ryan’s first time on this big stage, so we’re taking preparation seriously. After the president’s performance last week, we know Joe Biden will be coming at us like a cannonball.”

Ryan spent three and a half days last week in Virginia focused on debate prep and started another day and a half of it Tuesday in Florida. He’s also had a few other days in previous weeks sparring with Ted Olson, who served as solicitor general under President George W. Bush.

Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters Tuesday that Biden would be ready to go after Ryan’s budget plans and to lay out the differences between the candidates.

Obama strategist David Axelrod is helping prep Biden. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) is helping and standing in for Ryan.

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