What would you do if you knew millions of eyes would be glued to you for 90 minutes? You’re up on a hot stage. Maybe you’re sweating or your clothes are not all that comfortable. Your feet may hurt and you could have a frog in your throat. There’s not much one can do about that. But what you CAN do is prepare. The wise Benjamin Franklin once said, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” So let’s take a look at how Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan prepared for tonight’s big showdown…
Paul Ryan’s Prep Work
Paul Ryan is known for being a very meticulous man. Ryan began his prep-work three weeks ago with full-day sessions in Portland, Oregon. He carries an over-sized brown briefcase stuffed with 40 pounds of paperwork. ”I do a lot of reading, that’s what I’ve always done — briefings and reading,” Ryan told CNN. He added, ”This stage is kind of new for me and I’m taking it very seriously,” he replied. “I’m just doing my homework and studying the issues and I’ll know he’ll come and attack us. The problem he has is he has Barack Obama’s record to run on.”
His brother, Tobin, says Ryan is “a guy who absorbs more in a day than is humanly possible.” Steve King, a close friend of Ryan’s, says that it’s not uncommon for the congressman to stay up late and fall asleep at his desk. ”They carve out 30 minutes here, 45 minutes there, if possible two hours here. And if anyone encroaches on that time, you hear from people that you can’t do that. Paul’s got to do his reading,” Tobin says. He adds that his brother isn’t used to having such a large team of people telling him what he can and can’t say. So occasionally there are times where he pushes back and says, “Look, I just don’t speak that way.”
In a way, it’s as if his whole life prepared him for this debate, Tobin says. “Paul grew up in an environment where if you made a comment, you know, our dad would tell us further, ‘What do you mean?’ Why do you mean that? Are you thinking big enough?’ So I have a feeling that Paul, in that sort of discourse, he’s latched in to the whole debate process.”
In addition to reading and studying, Ryan has enlisted the help of Former Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey and renowned litigator Ted Olson to role-play in mock debates. They conducted some of these mock debates in Ryan’s hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin, where he feels most comfortable.
They’ve done other debates in hotels where Ryan is stumping. One of the places he holed up was the swanky Vinoy Renaissance, a historic Mediterranean revival-style hotel on the western edge of Tampa Bay. Olson and Ryan discuss different lines and ideas on the road, but they’ve also down six or more formal mock debates, keeping to the time limits and the 90-minute duration to prepare for the real deal. Now that the debate is nearly upon him, Olson says he remains in “Joe Biden character” for the entirety of the debate prep and no longer breaks to dissect answers as he had in the past.
“I’m not intimidated,” Ryan said of the debate tonight. “I’m actually excited about it. I came to Congress when I was 28 years old. I’m used to debating people who are older.” Later, while ordering a scoop of “Moose Tracks” ice cream, he admitted, “This is my first time, so sure, it’s a nervous situation because Joe Biden is one of the most experienced debaters we have in modern politics. Joe Biden’s been on these big stages before…. But what he can’t run from is President Obama’s indefensible record.”
Joe Biden’s Prep Work
Vice President Joe Biden spent Sunday through Wednesday back in Wilmington, Delaware to prep for the debate. There, he had an exact replica of the stage constructed. Strategist David Axelrod is on-hand to provide insight. Former Chief of Staff Ron Klain is in charge of the debate preparations for both Obama and Biden.
“There are few activities that candidates undertake that hold so much opportunity and so much risk” Klain wrote recently. “While you can lose a debate any time, you can only win it in the first 30 minutes.” He added, “While the importance of one-liners and ‘zingers’ in debates is probably overestimated, preparing a set of such material is an important part of debate prep.”
Klain takes a creative approach to debate prep. According to a memo, he had Biden…
- Write out his “dream post-debate headline”
- Come up with three “must-say” items
- Study what Ryan has been saying on the stump recently
- Read local newspapers where the debate is being held to identify questions that may be asked
- Devote sufficient time to studying issues identified by the mainstream media to identify questions
- Practice, practice, practice — especially with mock debates
- Stand-in as Paul Ryan, using lines he has used in the past to get inside his head
- Rehearse the basic responses to know them inside and out
- Tour the grounds and stage where the debate is taking place
Former Delaware Senator Ted Kaufman, who has been helping advise the vice president during long hours in a Wilmington hotel, said the main challenge in preparing for a debate with Ryan is that “you just don’t know who’s going to show up. The variability in the Romney/Ryan positions, and the creativity in terms of how it changes makes preparing for a debate very different.” But, he adds, “He’s in a good mood, good shape, this is something he’s done before, and he knows what he’s doing.”
Echoing that statement is former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, who played Sarah Palin in their mock debates back in 2008. “He was a happy warrior,” she recalled. ”When I was a candidate, I hated debate prep with a passion. So I was always struck by how game Joe Biden was about doing this. Because it’s such an unpleasant task, to have to do debate prep, because it’s standing there responding to people reading the worst opposition research memo about you. You have to hit them back, but he was totally game.”
For the 2008 election, Granholm said she “became a Palintologist” to mimic the former Alaskan Governor’s mannerisms and talking points. “It’s an interesting contrast between 2008 and this time,” Granholm remarked. “Sarah Palin did not know all the policies inside the beltway, and Paul Ryan does. And of course Joe Biden does. So he can really take off the gloves, Biden can – as well as Ryan – and they’re going to have a good knock-down, drag-out debate hopefully without dragging down their own favorability.”
She explains that the real challenge will be “not to appear too wonky,” as both he and Paul Ryan tend to be heavy into policy. She adds that Biden also struggles against his own loquaciousness and pack his message into the allotted response time. Biden was very open to suggestions, which is unlike most candidates, Granholm said.
Maryland House Representative Chris Van Hollen — who played Paul Ryan in the mock debates — expects that Paul Ryan will be attacked for inaccuracies following the debate. “As we saw from his convention speech, it is an open question as to whether Congressman Ryan will lay out anything that withstands the scrutiny of the fact checkers,” he said.
“I think he is going to play hardball,” Jennifer Granholm added. ”He won’t have to worry about pulling punches. He can go after policy and raise issues with a number of deliberate deceptions the other side has put forth.” She also said she expects Biden to be “more emotional on behalf of real people” in this debate.
According to Biden himself, he has been studying up on Ryan’s positions because he doesn’t want the Congressman to pull a Romney and respond with “No, no, no, I don’t have that position.” He echoes the Campaign message that he wants to outline the contrasting positions to give Americans a clear choice.
While he may not be nervous per se, he admits, “All debates are tough. You can sit there and say I would have done that, I would have done this. Well, nothing like standing up before 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 million people.”