* Obama's weak debate raises the stakes for Biden-Ryan clash
* Democrats hope Biden can blunt growing Republican momentum
* Biden more experienced, but has history of gaffes
By John Whitesides
DANVILLE, Ky., Oct 11 With the Republicans
grabbing the momentum in a shifting White House race, Vice
President Joe Biden will look to recover some ground and ease
Democratic worries on Thursday in a high-stakes debate against
Republican challenger Paul Ryan.
Mitt Romney's steady climb in polls since President Barack
Obama's poor performance in last week's first debate has raised
the importance of the vice presidential showdown, which is
rarely a critical event in White House campaigns.
This time it comes at a critical juncture, with Romney
enjoying one of his best weeks of the campaign and Obama
suffering the fallout from his passive performance four weeks
before the Nov. 6 election.
"This has turned into a legitimate high-stakes debate
because the ground has shifted so profoundly on the Democrats,"
said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist
University in Texas.
"Biden at least has to hold his own so panic doesn't set in
for Democrats," he said. "They don't want to lose two in a row."
Biden and Ryan, the Republican chairman of the House Budget
Committee, meet at 9 p.m. EDT (0100 GMT Friday) in the
nationally televised debate from Centre College in Danville,
Romney and Republicans have been on a roll since last week's
first debate, which came just as Obama appeared to be taking
command of the race. A Reuters/Ipsos online poll on Wednesday
showed Romney taking his first lead over Obama in more than a
month, 45 percent to 44 percent.
It was one of several national polls showing the debate
helped Romney significantly improve his personal image and his
standing on key issues like handling the economy, as well as
bolster his standing in key swing states that will decide the
Democrats have accused Romney of shifting or misrepresenting
his positions on issues during and after the debate. Biden is
expected to be more confrontational than Obama in an encounter
that will include both domestic and foreign policy issues.
"He's going to have to be on his toes," Obama campaign
adviser Robert Gibbs said of Biden on MSBNC.
"My guess is you're going to see what Mitt Romney tried to
do, which is Paul Ryan ... walk away from the positions that
he's held during this campaign and give a much much different,
softer image for the American people," he said.
Democrats accused Romney of shifting positions again on
Tuesday when he told the Des Moines Register that he was "not
familiar with" any specific legislation targeting abortion that
he would pursue. They said he was trying to soften his
opposition to abortion rights to appeal to women.
'A PRO-LIFE CANDIDATE'
But Romney denied he was easing his strong anti-abortion
rights stance. "I think I've said time and again that I'm a
pro-life candidate and I'll be a pro-life president," he told
reporters at a campaign stop in Ohio.
Ryan told reporters in Florida that he and Romney were
unified on the abortion issue. "Our position is consistent and
hasn't changed," he said.
Biden, the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations
and Judiciary committees, has much more experience on the
national stage than Ryan, a 42-year-old Wisconsin congressman.
He was a strong performer in the Democratic primary debates
during his failed 2008 run for the White House and fared well
against Republican Sarah Palin in the 2008 vice presidential
But he also has a reputation for gaffes, most recently his
remark that the middle class has been "buried for the last four
years" - the span of Obama's presidency - by a bad economy.
Obama, in an interview with ABC News on Wednesday, said he
was not worried about Biden.
"I think Joe just needs to be Joe. Congressman Ryan is a
smart and effective speaker. But his ideas are the wrong ones
and Joe understands that," he said.
Ryan's previous debate experience consists of a few
congressional debates in his native Wisconsin. He was happy to
raise expectations for Biden's performance.
"Sure it's a nervous situation. Joe Biden's one of the most
experienced debaters we have in modern politics," Ryan told
reporters. "But the Achilles' heel he has is President Obama's
Ryan's budget plan, which has made him a hit with
conservatives, is likely to play a starring role. Ryan proposes
slashing government spending and creating a "voucher" system for
the Medicare healthcare program for seniors, which Democrats say
would leave some seniors paying more of their medical costs.
"The challenge for Biden, and Obama didn't do this at all,
is to put the other side on the defensive and make them explain
themselves and their policies," said Steven Schier, a political
scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota.
Biden said he has been studying Ryan's plan during his
debate preparations. Democratic Representative Chris Van Hollen
has played Ryan in mock debates, while Ryan has been prepped by
former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson.