ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.
Paul D. Ryan’s first debate performance was nothing like his opponent expected. It was 1998, and Ryan was a 28-year-old Wisconsin congressional aide with powerful Washington mentors. Lydia Spottswood was a nurse and president of the Kenosha City Council, who thought helping her community was fun.
“I had naive ideas about how it worked,” said Spottswood, now 61, whose loss to Ryan 14 years ago launched him on an unimpeded political career that has led to Centre College in Danville, Ky., where Thursday night he will meet Vice President Joe Biden in their only debate.
“I thought, ‘It’s ladies and gentlemen running for Congress,’” Spottswood said Sunday. What she got, she said, was “shock and awe.”
This time, Ryan expects to be the target.
“We think he’s going to come at me like a cannonball,” Ryan told Wisconsin radio host Charlie Sykes on Saturday after three days of debate preparation in a resort at the foot of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
As in 2008, where Sarah Palin had to convince voters that she was ready for the demands of the vice president’s office, the stakes in this debate also are unusually high. Polls in the last few days show that President Barack Obama’s lackluster performance against Mitt Romney altered the race, with states that were assumed to be leaning comfortably toward Democrats starting to look more favorable for Romney.
Ryan’s job will be to keep the Republican momentum going until Obama and Romney meet for their second debate Tuesday.
The Ryan camp, not surprisingly, is pushing down expectations. An oft-repeated sentiment from Ryan and his staff: Biden might suffer from foot-in-mouth disease, but the debate stage effects a magical, if temporary, cure. “He doesn’t produce gaffes in these moments,” Ryan told Fox News on Sept. 30.
Romney told CNN on Tuesday that he thought this would be Ryan’s first debate. “He may have done something in high school,” Romney said. “I don’t know.” (Ryan has debated his Democratic opponents, often more than once, in each of his seven House campaigns.)
In the last few days, as he hunted for votes in Milwaukee, suburban Detroit and Toledo, Ryan, 42, seemed unruffled by the pending showdown. With journalists and Secret Service agents in tow, he took his children to a pumpkin patch in southeast Wisconsin and shopped for spices for his homemade venison sausage at a favorite Italian deli in Kenosha. He wandered to the back of his plane at least three times to greet journalists traveling with him and engage in innocuous, off-the-record chitchat about tattoos and rock lyrics.
Earnest and congenial, he never uttered a newsworthy word.
Unlike Biden, 69, he’s a talking-point stickler who has yet to be pried off message, which could present a challenge to Biden and debate moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News.
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