DANVILLE, Ky. – Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Paul Ryan pull up a couple of chairs for a vice presidential debate that has mushroomed in importance since Mitt Romney's strong showing in the first presidential faceoff. This time, it's the Obama team looking to put the brakes on the other guy's momentum.
The veep showdown matches up two skilled politicians with strong policy credentials and very different styles. It's 69-year-old Biden's folksy appeal and solid vice presidential portfolio vs. 42-year-old Ryan's intensity and extensive knowledge of the federal budget and economy from 14 years in Congress.
"Looking forward to it," Biden said Thursday as he boarded his plane for Kentucky with his children and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who has been playing Ryan in practice debate sessions.
Like the second installment in a miniseries, the debate will help to shape the campaign narrative until Romney and Obama meet up again Tuesday. Obama is eager to change the vibe after his lackluster performance in the first debate and Romney's recent gains in the polls. Romney, for his part, is hoping a strong Ryan performance will help propel Republicans forward on an energetic drive through the campaign's final weeks.
The 90-minute debate at Centre College, a liberal arts school with just 1,340 students in tiny Danville, is sure to draw a television audience of tens of millions. But it's unlikely to eclipse the 70 million who tuned in to watch Biden face off with Republican firebrand Sarah Palin four years ago.
That debate was more of a curiosity: It allowed Palin to outdo Biden in folksiness and recover from a series of painfully awkward media interviews but did little to alter the trajectory of the race.
"Normally vice presidential debates are good political theater and sort of interesting from a talent scout standpoint, as you evaluate the up-and-comers on the political stage," says Alan Schroeder, author of a book on presidential debates. "But this year could be different because of the negative reviews of Obama's performance. That heightens expectations for this second debate."
"Joe just needs to be Joe," Obama said, when asked his advice for the vice president in an interview Wednesday with ABC News.
Senior Obama adviser David Axelrod, appearing Thursday on "CBS This Morning," said he believes "the big challenge for him is to pin Congressman Ryan down."
"Right now the Romney campaign is running away from some of their positions like unwanted stepchildren," Axelrod said.
Thursday was a rare day when the political activities of the running mates were taking center stage and those of Obama and Romney were seen as secondary. But with just 26 days left until the election and the race still tight, neither Obama nor Romney was completely ceding the spotlight. The president was hunting for votes in Florida while his GOP opponent devoted time to North Carolina, another battleground.
Thursday's debate, moderated by Martha Raddatz of ABC News, will cover both foreign and domestic topics. The debate is to be divided into nine, 10-minute segments. At the outset of each segment, Raddatz will ask an opening question, and each candidate will have two minutes to respond.
Romney and Obama both predicted strong performances by their No. 2s.
"I think Paul Ryan will do great," Romney told supporters at a town-hall meeting Wednesday in Mount Vernon, Ohio.
He said the debates offer people a rare chance to see the candidates directly, unfiltered by misleading and negative ads.
The GOP nominee said he'd seen some of the anti-Romney TV ads running in Ohio that morning, and added: "It's a good thing I don't do that very often because my blood pressure would be very high."
Obama, in a radio interview Wednesday with Tom Joyner, said he'd been "too polite" in his debate with Romney — a sure sign that Biden won't be going easy on Ryan. And that Obama won't make the same mistake in the next two presidential debates, on Tuesday in Hempstead, N.Y., and Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla.
"We've got four weeks left in the election, and we're going to take it to him," Obama said.
Later, in an interview with ABC News, Obama minimized the importance of his poor first debate performance, saying: "Gov. Romney had a good night. I had a bad night. It's not the first time I've had a bad night."
He added: "What's important is the fundamentals of what this race is about haven't changed."
The president, who had tried to lower expectations for his own performance before last week's debate, predicted in his radio interview that Biden would be "terrific."
Ryan signaled he's ready for whatever Biden sends his way.
"I'm not intimidated, I'm actually excited about it," he said on CNN.
Both Biden and Ryan head into the debate with vulnerabilities: Biden must rein in a freewheeling manner that can be endearing but also produces plenty of gaffes. Ryan hasn't been in a campaign debate for more than a decade and is light on foreign policy experience, a sharp contrast to the vice president, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Ryan also will need to find a way to reinforce Romney's policy positions without selling out his own, more conservative credentials.
Romney adviser Kevin Madden signaled in advance that Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, would distance himself from his past proposals for sharp budget cuts.
"You have to remember that there is a Romney-Ryan ticket and there's one presidential candidate — there's one person at the top of the ticket — so the focus again will be on what Gov. Romney's plan is for reforming Washington," Madden said.