SBS Online

By Rhiannon Elston

The US vice presidential candidates clash in their sole debate today, with Democrats itching for revenge after Mitt Romney's drubbing of President Barack Obama tightened the White House race.

With Mitt Romney edging ahead of Obama in the US election polls, the Vice Presidential debate could prove critical to a Democratic comeback. But is Joe Biden up to the challenge?

Luke Freedman from the US Studies Centre speaks to Rhiannon Elston about what to expect when the VP candidates meet this Friday.

RE: Both sides are no doubt feeling the pressure right now, with Biden hoping to regain ground after Romney’s strong performance in the first presidential debate, and with the polls still very much undecided on the outcome. Do you think we’ll see a fiery debate – no playing it safe?

LF: I’m expecting it to be a little less amicable than the first debate. Team Obama wasn’t happy with the president’s passivity last week and will want Biden to take a more aggressive tone. Also, it’s often the VP’s job to be the attack dog for the campaign allowing the president to stay above the fray.

RE: We've seen an interesting development this week, with Mitt Romney inching ahead in the polls for the first time. Will this change the dynamic of the VP debate?

It’s important to take these post-debate polls with a grain of salt. My sense is that once the bounce subsides you’re still going to see Obama clinging to a narrow lead. What it does illustrate is that Romney is capable of creating some positive momentum. That’s something we hadn’t really seen so far in the general election.

At this point neither candidate has much margin for error. Last week, the president seemed content to try and protect the lead. This week, I think you’ll see a much more aggressive Biden.

RE: What are the big champion issues for each VP candidate, and where are we likely to see conflict?

LF: Ryan is the author of the Republican budget proposals for 2012 and 2013. He’s spent a lot of time championing tax reform and large-scale changes to entitlement programs. There’s going to be a lot of sparring over the current state of the economy and attempts to reign in the national debt.

In the Senate Biden served as chairman of both the Committee on Foreign Relations and the Judiciary Committee. I expect him to attack the Republican ticket’s lack of experience on international affairs. You’ll also probably hear Biden make mention of the president’s role in nominating Supreme Court justices. It’s one of the president's most important responsibilities but unfortunately it hasn’t gotten a lot of attention in this campaign.

RE: Traditionally the ‘top of the ticket’ candidates are the ones that win voters. How much of an impact is this debate likely to have?

LF: Presidential debates generally don’t end up mattering that much and vice presidential debates even less so. That being said, Romney clearly moved the polls last week and so we could be reaching an inflection point where Ryan and co. either builds off this momentum or Biden is able to stop the bleeding.

RE: What are some of the potential dangers here for each candidate – could we see more gaffes from Biden, or too much aggression, for example, from Ryan?

LF: Yes, I think the danger for Democrats is that Biden strays off message. As for Ryan, he’s certainly a capable politician; but he’s never run for statewide office and thus doesn’t have much experience in this sort of format. The Wisconsin congressman has also touched the third rail of politics with his previous proposal to turn Medicaid into a voucher system.

RE: Who do you think we’ll see the stronger performance from?

LF: I’m going to hedge on this one. I do think Biden’s experience gives him a bit of an advantage but it’s fairly likely that this will be more or less a draw. Voters who watched the debate last week overwhelmingly declared Romney the winner. But, in most cases, public opinion is much more divided and split across partisan lines.

Watch the Vice Presidential debate live on SBS ONE or streamed live on the SBS World News Australia website from 12pm ADST (Australian Daylight Saving Time), and join the Luke Freedman online for an interactive discussion.