Mary Altaffer, Associated Press
DANVILLE, Ky. — Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Paul Ryan were under pressure Thursday to help boost their tickets out of a closely fought battle for the White House as the nation's eyes turned to the pair of scrappy vice presidential nominees meeting for their only debate.
The 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.
Warming up President Barack Obama's crowd at the University of Miami's basketball arena, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson predicted: "Tonight, Joe Biden will make mincemeat of Paul Ryan." Obama, himself, didn't mention Biden while encouraging the crowd to take advantage of early voting in Florida, but he did call Biden from Air Force One en route to the rally to wish him luck.
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.
With the spotlight on the running mates, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney spent the morning in secluded practice for his next face-off with Obama on Tuesday. He then flew to North Carolina, where he visited the Rev. Billy Graham before an evening rally in Asheville with country singer Ronnie Milsap.
The vice presidential debate will help to shape the campaign narrative until Romney and Obama meet again Tuesday for the second of three debates. 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.
"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 played Ryan in practice debate sessions. The vice president then holed up with his traveling entourage in a private home near the debate sight. His GOP challenger stayed out of the public eye all day Thursday. Aides reported that he spent time with his family, studied debate briefing books and exercised.
Democratic Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear encouraged Biden to turn in a tougher performance than Obama. Beshear said Obama "didn't do well" in the presidential debate and should have mentioned Romney's dismissive comments about the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay income taxes.
"My guess is that he was advised to be presidential and don't get into the fray and look like you are above the fray and all that," Beshear said in an interview with The Associated Press. "But there is a difference in doing that and being aggressive and making your points and pointing out the difference between your two candidates."
Obama's campaign posted a photo on Twitter of Biden and Van Hollen practicing for the debate. They sat side by side in suit jackets and no ties on a set designed to look like the debate stage at Centre College, a liberal arts school with just 1,340 students.
The brief glimpse into Biden's debate preparations, with the vice president sitting with a coffee cup in front of him, is a marked contrast from the total secrecy that surrounded the president's practice sessions. Obama's aides have refused to even discuss the most basic details of his debate preparation.
Biden kept the mood light during practice runs this week in his hometown of Wilmington, Del., aides said. He bought his team subs for lunch Monday from a local sandwich shop and kept a supply of animal crackers and M&Ms on hand. The team spent most mornings in policy discussions at a hotel near Biden's home, with mock debates in the afternoon.
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