Vice Presidential Debate 2012: Paul Ryan a tough debater, ex-rivals say
By: Juana Summers
October 11, 2012 09:22 AM EDT
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — To those who know best — his past debate foes — Paul Ryan is an agile debater, able to balance explaining the complex federal budget process while still looking like the youthful boy-next-door.
That’s according to a review of the debates and forums he participated in as a Wisconsin House candidate since 1998, and interviews with his Democratic challengers who spoke to POLITICO about his debating skills.
The GOP vice presidential nominee will be tested as never before as he stands toe-to-toe on the national stage for the first time on Thursday night to debate Vice President Joe Biden in Danville, Ky.
But, the 42-year-old Ryan — who has participated in eight debates for his congressional seat — is hardly a rookie debater, though Biden’s debate chops are well-honed and his breadth of experience on the national stage is obviously greater.
During an October 1998 debate with Lydia Spottswood, Ryan’s Democratic opponent, Ryan took a couple of pointed jabs at the former Kenosha City Council member and nurse. But he kept his tone largely cordial.
In one exchange, Ryan suggested that Spottswood changed her views for political expedience, rather than sticking to her guns. It’s a charge not dissimilar to the one Democrats have lobbed at Mitt Romney over the course of his political career.
“I think it’s very, very important to know what your principles are,” Ryan said. “Don’t keep changing your positions 30 days out from an election.”
He framed himself as a product of the local environment, telling voters “I was born in Janesville, I grew up in Janesville” as he worked to combat Spottswood’s charge that he was a Washington insider. “She’s going to try to say I’m a Washington guy,” Ryan said of Spottswood.
In an interview with POLITICO, Spottswood said don’t let Ryan’s charm offensive fool you — that beneath the Wisconsin lawmaker’s “aw shucks” persona is a fierce contender, who could land some powerful punches. She said the “mental approach and tactics” Ryan’s brings to the presidential campaign trail aren’t unlike those he used when campaigning against her in 1998.
“What Paul Ryan does is he portrays himself to people as if he were a Washington outsider, he talks as if he’s in another room when decisions are being made in Washington. This is an intentionally misleading tactic,” Spottswood said.
Spottswood took up a common Democratic refrain — that Ryan isn’t telling the truth and can’t be trusted.
“I would say he should not — not just the vice president, but the average person watching this — shouldn’t assume that if Ryan said it that it’s factual. And it shouldn’t be ignored when it’s not factual. It’s necessary for him to be confronted and knocked back,” Spottswood cautioned.
This week, Ryan’s campaign – and Ryan himself – are working hard to tamp down expectations for the congressman’s performance on Thursday night.
During an unannounced stop at an ice cream shop here, Ryan said his debate preparations went “well” and that the vice president’s greatest weakness is “Barack Obama’s record.”
“Look, Joe Biden has been on this stage before. He has been on these big stages. This is my first time. But what he can’t run from is President Obama’s indefensible record. They are just offering more of the same. I am excited because we have a chance yet again to offer this country a very clear choice,” Ryan said.
A Ryan aide argued earlier that there was “no doubt” that Ryan came to the debate stage as an underdog.
“He’s never really done a debate like this on the national stage,” Ryan spokesman Michael Steel said. “By contrast, the aide argued, Biden has run for president twice and was “the front-runner for the Democratic nomination when Paul Ryan was in high school.”
Steel argued that debating congressional candidates — who Ryan has typically has defeated by large margins — isn’t the same as verbal jousting with the vice president on the national stage.
“There’s nothing like the intensity or the experience of a live nationally televised one-on-one debate. He’s done big things. He’s debated congressional opponents. He’s done televised responses to the president’s State of the Union, but there’s nothing that compares to this kind of” experience, Steel said.
Ryan arrived on Tuesday here in Florida, keeping a light public schedule and focusing his time instead on debate prep and policy briefings.
Ted Olson — the attorney who has served as stand-in for Biden during debate prep — made the trip as well, leaving Florida separate from the campaign early Wednesday morning. Other campaign advisers present for the most recent round of debate prep included senior Romney advisers Ed Gillespie, Gail Gitcho, Russ Schriefer and Kerry Healey, the former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, who stood in for ABC’s Martha Raddatz, who will moderate Thursday’s face-off.
John Heckenlively, who challenged Ryan in 2010 said Ryan’s style hasn’t changed, but the level of attention and scrutiny he’s received from the press has dramatically escalated.
“He hasn’t changed much, there are certain themes that he’s very comfortable with speaking about and he tends to like to try to shift the conversation to those issues — either talking about the budget or, the other thing he likes to focus on a lot is values. He likes to frame things in values-laden talk,” Heckenlively said in an interview.
“…There’s a certain wonky side to him, a sort of professorial side. He likes to get up and sort of explain things and like, throw out the facts and figures. And that side we’ve seen from him nationally.”
Heckenlively argued that Ryan is a member of the “very, very conservative side of the Republican” Party and Biden was a “fairly liberal member of the Senate,” so it won’t be hard to distinguish them.
“It’s very clear cut where the two of them stand. I think strategically for the vice president, I think the most important thing for him to stick very clear with the facts. Ryan’s very clear about where he’s coming from,” the Democrat said.
“He laid out the roadmap for America. It’s the two budgets that he’s passed and certainly the guy has a 14-year voting record. [Biden] should have no problem, I think, establishing that both Romney and Ryan have a very extreme vision for where they want to take the United States.”
While Ryan’s focused all his attention on campaigning for the vice presidency, he does face a challenge for his House seat this year from Democrat Rob Zerban, a catering-company owner and former Kenosha County board member.
Zerban is looking to debate Ryan too, but has yet to make any headway.
“He knows what he’s doing,” a source close to the Zerban campaign said of Ryan’s past debate performances. “He’s been in the national spotlight for a long time. So I think it’s right that the expectations are high.”
The Ryan campaign argues that the congressman’s decision not to debate Zerban is in step with a precedent set by other vice presidential contenders who ran for reelection at the same time, including Biden.
“Joe Biden and Joe Lieberman, and even Lloyd Bentsen’s opponents all unsuccessfully pursued the same strategy and precedent set by these three Democrats — as well as others who have simultaneously been on the ballot for a Congressional office in the vice presidency — has been to participate in the vice presidential debate only,” a Ryan congressional campaign spokesman said in an email.
Speaking to a local newspaper, Ryan argued that the “tradition with other campaigns..was to only do the vice presidential debate.” But, he said, “I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.”