The dark art of the vice presidential debate begins with a single rule: If everybodys talking about you, youre doing it wrong.
Since 1976, there have been eight televised face-offs between vice presidential nominees. The ninth will come when Vice President Joe Biden debates Republican Rep. Paul Ryan at Centre College in Danville, Ky.
By now, both parties have worked out tactics to fit this odd ritual. They require the barbed wit of an insult comedian and the humility of the hind legs in a two-man horse costume.
Talk up your running mate. Zing your opponent. But avoid letting your career or your policy ideas become the focus. On the biggest night of your political life, its not about you, candidates are told.
The stakes Thursday night will be unusually high, and the job of playing second banana especially tough. Biden spent 36 years in the Senate. Ryan crafted a plan for remaking the entire government.
Now these proud, successful men will have to insist convincingly that theyd rather talk about somebody else.
Whatever you stood for, you stand for the team now, said Samuel Popkin, a professor at the University of California at San Diego who has helped coach Democrats in debates.
By tradition, the vice presidential debates have been like the vice presidency itself: well-publicized but largely inconsequential.
At the polling firm Gallup, researchers analyzed survey results before and after every VP debate since 1976 (there wasnt one in 1980). We really dont see any statistical change in any of them, said Frank Newport, Gallups editor in chief.
But this year, both parties hope, could mean a little more.
Democrats hope that Biden can make up for Obamas tentative, defensive performance in the first presidential debate last week. That would mean attacking Ryan over Romneys plans for taxes, Medicare and the budget, and pointing out where Romneys ideas conflict with Ryans.
Republicans, by contrast, think the numbers-focused Ryan will extend his partys win streak to two against the gaffe-prone Biden. Ryan began his debate preparations a month ago, holding three mock debates, with former U.S. solicitor general Ted Olson playing Biden. He then spent three days last week huddled in debate camp in southwest Virginia.
Biden played two roles in the previous presidential campaign cycle: In the Democratic debates, he was the loose, bomb-throwing long shot; but during the general election, he faced political neophyte Sarah Palin in the vice presidential debate. Bidens job was to be polite, repeat talking points about Sen. John McCain and try to stay out of the way.
Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, has sparred with Democrats before on issues of taxes and spending. He often uses a genial, prodding demeanor, which suggests that he is saddened by his opponents missteps but hopeful that his challengers can reform.
A TV interview this week suggested that Ryan might have little practice handling what he is likely to get from Biden: criticism on issues beyond the budget. A local reporter in Michigan asked Ryan whether the country has a gun problem. Ryans answer wandered, but it wound up with the argument that economic prosperity is the cure for urban violence.
You can do all that by cutting taxes, with a big tax cut? the reporter asked.
Those are your words, not mine, Ryan said. A press aide cut off the interview.
Now Ryan will join Biden in a ritual that, despite looking like a standard presidential debate, has its own peculiar set of traditions. A big one: Vice presidential debates are rarely won in any meaningful way. Even a smart performance is forgotten once the next presidential debate rolls around in this case, Tuesday.
But a vice presidential debate probably can be lost in a way that haunts the career of the running mate.
I recall pretty distinctly saying, You cant compare ... yourself to Kennedy, said Kenneth Khachigian, a longtime Republican debate adviser, remembering his advice to then-candidate Dan Quayle in 1988. Quayle liked that he and former president John F. Kennedy had similar experience in Congress.
But Khachigian said no: Youre comparing yourself to a memory.
Quayle did it anyway. Across the aisle, Democrat Lloyd Bentsen was waiting.
I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine, he said, looking like it pained him to point this out. Senator, youre no Jack Kennedy.
The moment stained Quayle even though his man, George H.W. Bush, clobbered Michael Dukakis in the race. And it proved once again that a well-timed insult can really make a difference.
Im up in the Senate most Tuesdays when theyre in session, Vice President Dick Cheney told then-Sen. John Edwards in 2004. The first time I ever met you was when you walked on the stage tonight. That turned out not to be true, but for Edwards, it still hurt.
The most memorable line of the very first vice presidential debate was when Democrat Walter Mondale took on Republican Bob Dole over Doles hard-edged criticisms: Senator Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man, Mondale said, and the line seemed to sink Dole.