FOR Democrats and supporters of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, the hope is that the version of the former vice-president who faced then-congressman Paul Ryan back in 2012 shows up to debate Donald Trump on Tuesday in Ohio.
The Biden who showed up for the Ryan debate helped turn around Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. Ask just about any Obama campaign alumna or Democratic strategist and they will concede that Obama’s performance against Mitt Romney in the first debate was lacking.
“I would describe what he did in 2012 as a circuit breaker,” said Tad Devine, who ran Vermont senator Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.
It was a low point in the campaign, former Obama campaign staffers recalled in interviews with the Guardian, and it was unclear whether Biden’s performance in the vice-presidential debate would help lift the suddenly faltering campaign – or let it sink further.
“Obama’s performance was just miserable,” Devine said. “Biden went in there against Ryan and, boy, he was appropriately aggressive. On point. Really drove the thing and I think staunched the bleeding.”
Staffers for the reelection campaign often contrast the first debate with the vice-presidential debate.
“Obama had flubbed the first debate and there was a lot of pressure on [Biden] to deliver and he nailed it and I know he sort of cold-cocked them,” one top re-election campaign adviser recalled.
Now, the stakes for Biden’s performance are far higher, as he tops the Democratic ticket and faces off against a norm-shattering figure in a momentous election the whole world is watching.
Trump’s preparation for his debates against Hillary Clinton in 2016 was notoriously scattergun, involving burger lunches and Rudy Giuliani, but he went out and competed through sheer force of character, rather than any visible policy chops.
Speaking to Fox &Friends in an interview broadcast on Sunday, the president said he had been preparing for Biden debate every day.
“When you’re president, you sort of see everything that they’re going to be asking,” he said. “And they may disagree with you, but we’ve done a great job. We created the greatest economy in history. And now it’s coming back. We closed it. We saved millions and millions of lives by doing what I did. And now we’re bringing it back.”
Bill Daley, a former chief of staff to Obama who also advised Biden on one of his earlier White House bids, told the Guardian the first debate “is almost the whole ball game because we have a polarized country, everyone knows who they’re going to vote for except for a small group of people and they’ll watch the first debate and make a judgement.”
The Biden who took the stage alongside Ryan surprised some. He was energetic and policy literate. And he didn’t produce the verbal missteps that for years he was famed for. As Ryan ticked off statistics or delivered carefully crafted attack lines, Biden switched between stern seriousness and exasperated eyerolls. Seven minutes in, Biden used one of his trademark phrases – “Malarkey!” – to parry a remark by Ryan.
“Not a single thing he said is accurate,” Biden said with a determined smile, then went on to detail how Ryan, as chairman of the House ways and means committee, had a hand in cutting off funding for a US embassy in Benghazi.
Where aides on the Obama campaign knew the president was not delivering in the first debate, Biden staff at Centre College in Kentucky flooded the spin room, where reporters interview candidates and surrogates after a debate, to capitalize on their man’s performance.
“The first hour, hour and a quarter had been so good it didn’t even matter what had happened next,” one former Obama campaign staffer recalled. “We wanted to convey that.”
At Obama campaign reelection headquarters there was a strong sense of relief and optimism, according to multiple former staffers.
Eight years later, one of Donald Trump’s favorite attacks is to knock his 77-year-old opponent on his age or vivacity – though Trump himself is 74. Biden also benefits from being the underdog.
“He benefits from low expectations going into these debates,” said David Wilhelm, Biden’s Iowa campaign manager in his 1988 presidential bid. “Expectations can shift of course even from debate to debate. He’ll benefit from that.”
Biden keeps top advisers close. Ron Klain, the former vice-president’s chief of staff who helped prep him in 2012, has been involved this time round. Sheila Nix, another longtime aide who was involved in 2012, is now a top staffer for California senator Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate. Mike Donilon, another longtime Biden adviser, and Biden campaign deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield are also involved in debate preparations.
Veterans of working with Biden and other campaigns argue that he usually does better in head-to-head debates than multi-candidate affairs. He also likes to get into policy without getting too wonky, recalled a top Obama reelection adviser. In preparation, Biden “just wants the back-up to make the points that he wants to make”.
“He was terrific in the 2012 vice-presidential debate and I think that would be a better model for this than where he had 10 people or eight people on stage,” said Bob Shrum, a veteran strategist who has advised Biden.
Biden and his team have been readying for the debate for weeks, but only in the past few days has the focus increased, according to a Democrat with ties to the campaign. Biden himself acknowledged that recently.
“I’ve started to prepare but I haven’t gotten into it really heavily,” Biden said on Wednesday. “I will be beginning tomorrow.”
He was set to spend most of the final days before the debate preparing.
Devine warned that the worst case for Biden is if voters come out of the debate questioning his capacity to be president. Devine stressed he didn’t think that would happen – but “that’s how low they’ve set the bar”.