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Pressure is on Biden after Obama's lackluster debate performance

* Vice president faces Republican Ryan in debate on Thursday

* Biden expected to be more aggressive than Obama

* For Ryan, debate is a national debut

By John Whitesides

WASHINGTON, Oct 7 (Reuters) - He has been stereotyped as theObama administration's gaffe-prone sideshow.

But Vice President Joe Biden also is a veteran debater whowas in the U.S. Senate for a quarter century and is perhaps theDemocratic White House's most passionate defender of the workingclass.

Now, with his debate against Republican vice presidentialnominee Paul Ryan coming up on Thursday, Biden is under pressureto help President Barack Obama's campaign recapture the momentumit enjoyed before Obama was outmaneuvered by Republican rivalMitt Romney last week in the first of their three debates.

That debate trimmed Obama's lead in the polls and raised thestakes for the lone vice presidential debate, which also will bea national debut of sorts for Ryan, the Wisconsin congressmanand budget specialist.

With the Romney-Ryan campaign energized, Democrats are inthe surprising position of relying on Biden, a perpetualpolitical wild card, to fire up their campaign. Democrats didget a boost in Friday's jobs report, which showed the nation'sunemployment rate dipped below 8 percent last month for thefirst time since January 2009, the month Obama took office.

"This is not about changing minds. This is about changingthe momentum," Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis said. "Thevice president is going to have to be very aggressive inundercutting Republican arguments. He can't allow Ryan tocontrol the debate the way Romney controlled his debate."

An aggressive Romney went after Obama in their debate,offering what appeared to be new positions - misrepresentations,Democrats claimed later - on taxes, healthcare and other issues.

Obama, strangely passive, left many of Romney's assertionsunanswered. It will be up to Biden, far more comfortable thanObama in the role of aggressor, to fill in the blanks on whatDemocrats say are Romney's shifting positions.

Biden could be well suited to the role.

He was a sharper performer than Obama when they debated aspresidential candidates during the 2008 Democratic primaries.The former Delaware senator's blunt-talking style makes him aparticularly effective communicator with blue-collar voters.

"Biden has a chance to undo some of the damage from thefirst debate," said David Steinberg, a debate coach andpolitical communications specialist at the University of Miami.

"The vice president's biggest job will be as a factchecker," he said. "He can come in and say, 'Well, this is whatGovernor Romney said last Wednesday, and this is why it'swrong.'"

Biden, campaigning in Iowa on Thursday, said he had beenstudying Republican campaign positions and promised to hold Ryanaccountable while sticking to the facts.

"I don't want to say anything in the debate that's notcompletely accurate," Biden told reporters. "I just want to makesure that when I say those things I don't have the congressmansay, 'No, no, no, I don't have that position,' or 'That's notthe governor's position.'"

The next presidential debate - the second of three - willnot be until Oct. 16, leaving Thursday's vice presidentialshowdown in Danville, Kentucky, as the next major item on thecampaign calendar in the race to the Nov. 6 election.

INTEREST RISES

Vice presidential debates rarely play a role in deciding aWhite House race, but Romney's decisive win in the firstpresidential debate has cranked up interest in Thursday'sencounter.

Biden, the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relationsand Judiciary committees, fared well in his face-off againstRepublican Sarah Palin in the 2008 vice presidential debate andproved to be a strong debater during his failed bid forpresident four years ago.

But he also has a reputation for gaffes, including hisrecent remark that the middle class has been "buried for thelast four years" - the span of Obama's presidency - by a badeconomy.

Biden was referring to the fallout from the recession thatbegan under Republican President George W. Bush, but Romney andRyan pounced on Biden's comment, saying that even Obama'srunning mate was acknowledging that the president had fallenshort in overseeing the economy.

Last spring, Biden forced Obama's hand on endorsing same-sexmarriage when the vice president declared his support for itduring a television interview.

Biden is portrayed at times as a political buffoon, but hisdefenders say the mistakes are evidence of a straight-talkingstyle that makes him a hit with many voters - and that can playwell in a debate setting.

"Biden has got something going for him in a debate, which isa sense of humor," said Alan Schroeder of NortheasternUniversity's Alan Schroeder, who has written a history ofpresidential debates.

"Both Romney and Obama are humor-challenged, and Paul Ryanhas not shown himself to be a barrel of laughs, so Biden has achance to bring some theatricality and some show-business energyto the debate that will make it more interesting," Schroedersaid.

Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, is popularwith conservatives for his plan to slash government spending andcreate a "voucher" system for the Medicare healthcare programfor seniors. Democrats say that a voucher system could leavesome seniors having to pay for much more of their medical costs.

Ryan is an unknown quantity in a debate setting, with hisonly previous experience coming in a few low-profilecongressional encounters in his native Wisconsin.

"This is the big game and Ryan is playing on a stage thathe's never had experience with, so he'll be under a great dealof pressure, too," Schroeder said.

A Reuters/Ipsos online poll of 2,367 voters this week foundboth men have work to do on their image, with "very unfavorable"being the most popular view of each. Biden scored better thanRyan, 39 percent to 33 percent, on the question of who was morequalified to take over as president.

Ryan and Biden have taken time off the campaign trail toprepare for Thursday's debate.

Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen has played Ryan in mockdebates with Biden; former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson hasplayed Biden in sessions with Ryan.

Van Hollen said Obama's performance in last week's debatehad not changed the Democratic strategy heading into the vicepresidential encounter.

"The focus is on the choice the American people face in thiselection," he said.

Even if the vice presidential debate is typically lessmeaningful than the presidential encounters, neither campaigncan afford a slip-up before an expected television audience inthe tens of millions.

"Every inch matters in this campaign," Republican strategistRon Bonjean said. "The polls are going to tighten up, and youdon't know what Biden you are going to get."

But Biden's reputation for mistakes could lower expectationsfor him.

"It would be nice to be Biden," Steinberg said. "He's got awider range of stuff he can say and people go, 'Oh, that's justBiden.' If Ryan said it, they will be looking at him through amicroscope."

(Editing by David Lindsey and Philip Barbara)

((John.Whitesides@thomsonreuters.com)(202-898-8300)(Reuters

Messaging: john.whitesides@thomsonreuters.com))

Keywords: USA CAMPAIGN/BIDEN