Biden and Ryan set for debate, and the campaigns wait for the impact

A sign promoting the vice presidential debate is held up Thursday at a rally on the Centre College campus, the site of the debate, in Danville, Ky. Vice President Joe Biden will face Republican vice presidential candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

DANVILLE, Ky. — In a battle of understudies, Joe Biden was set to face off against Republican rival Paul Ryan tonight, looking to right the Democratic team after watching it falter with a weak debate performance last week by Biden’s boss, President Barack Obama.

“Looking forward to it,” Biden proclaimed when he left his Delaware home today for Kentucky after six days of secluded debate preparation. Campaign aide Jen Psaki said the political veteran was “fired up and ready to go.”

Ryan, the fresh-faced congressman who has never debated on the national stage, despite his 14 years in the House of Representatives, arrived in the small college town earlier, betraying no signs of nervousness about the showdown with Biden, a veteran of 36 years of Senate debates and the 2008 campaign.

Their meeting, televised nationally from Centre College, is expected to be a mix of domestic and foreign policy questions in the same sit-down format used by vice presidential candidates Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman when they debated at the same college in 2000. The format, akin to a Sunday talk show, tends to produce more conversational exchanges. Martha Raddatz of ABC is the moderator.

Usually an afterthought with little impact on the race, the only such meeting between the No. 2s on their respective tickets took on added significance after Obama’s lackluster debate debut on Oct. 3.

Since then, Mitt Romney has pulled even with Obama in national polls and closed the gap in several battleground states.

In Florida, Obama has a 1 percentage-point edge over Romney in a new NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll of likely voters, released today. The margin was the same as before the Obama-Romney debate. In Ohio, Obama leads by 6 points. He had led by 8. And in Virginia, Obama was up 2, but Romney is now ahead by 1.

Heading into the debate, the two campaigns clashed repeatedly in ever tougher tones since the first presidential debate shook up the race.

Most notably, Romney has appeared to stake out or emphasize more moderate parts of his agenda, and the Obama-Biden campaign has all but accused the Romney-Ryan ticket of lying to paper over the more conservative message that Romney used to win his party’s nomination.

Among the top issues, the campaigns disagree sharply on several fronts:

On abortion, Romney caused a stir this week when he told the Des Moines Register that there was “no legislation with regards to abortion” that would become part of his agenda. Romney has said he would sign legislation limiting abortion if it ever reached his desk, though he said in the 2008 campaign that that is unlikely anytime soon, given the divided nature of U.S. politics on the subject.

He also has said he would sign an executive order to ban the use of U.S. foreign aid to pay for abortions overseas and would end federal aid to Planned Parenthood.

Ryan has gone further, saying abortion should only be legal when a woman’s life is at risk, and he co-sponsored a bill with Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., that would have redefined rape with respect to abortions. But when he joined the ticket, Ryan said that Romney would set policy for the administration.

Obama supports abortion rights without any restrictions such as requiring a minor to notify a parent before an abortion.

On Medicare, Obama wants to retain the traditional system, relying on the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to extend the life of the program by raising fees, and shaving $716 billion from anticipated payments to health care providers.

Ryan accuses Obama of looking to loot Medicare of $716 billion to help pay for the health care law, but Ryan used the same $716 billion in savings in the 10-year budget he proposed as chairman of the House Budget Committee. He’s since backtracked from his plan, and Romney insists he’d return the money to Medicare.

Romney vows to repeal Obama’s health care law and would replace the system. Starting in 2023, he’d give people checks to buy Medicare or private insurance. He’s said his plan is more efficient and allows seniors to make their own choices. Ryan had proposed a similar plan that would cap the amount of those government checks, or vouchers, but Romney would not cap them.

Obama said Romney’s plan would see healthier individuals being covered by private insurance companies, leaving the most ill and vulnerable with a frayed Medicare system.

On taxes, Obama wants to raise taxes on incomes above $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for families.

Romney promises to cut tax rates across the board, which by itself would add nearly $5 trillion to the deficit, according to an independent analysis. Romney denies that it would cost that much, noting at the last debate that he would propose unspecified offsets, such as limits on deductions that would ensure that wealthier Americans end up paying the same share of the country’s taxes as they do now.