JUDY WOODRUFF: Tonight's vice presidential debate marks another high-stakes moment in the campaign.
The Romney-Ryan team is hoping to hang on to its new momentum, while the Obama-Biden camp is trying to win it back. That left all of the pressure on the number twos today, as the hours counted down.
The candidates were sounding upbeat, ahead of their face-off at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. Vice President Joe Biden departed his home state of Delaware today for the debate.
JOSEPH BIDEN, U.S. Vice President: I'm looking forward to it.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The Republican vice presidential nominee, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, arrived yesterday.
REP. PAUL RYAN (R-Wisc.), Vice Presidential Candidate: Feel good about it.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But the public show of confidence belied the tension, as several new national polls show Ryan's running mate, Governor Romney, with a slight lead, though within the margin of error. That made what happens on the stage tonight even more critical.
President Obama called his vice president to wish him luck today, and voiced support for his man last night in an interview on ABC News.
BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States: I think Joe just needs to be Joe.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And Mitt Romneyplayed up his running mate's chances at a Wednesday event in Ohio.
MITT ROMNEY (R), Presidential Candidate: I think Paul Ryan will do great.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The debate will run 90 minutes, and be moderated by ABC's Martha Raddatz. The presidential contenders will meet again in New York on Tuesday.
Joining us for the debate later tonight and here right now to preview what to expect are two familiar faces, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.
So, David, this is not the top of the ticket, so how important is it?
DAVID BROOKS: More so than pretty much all the previous vice presidential debates, mostly because of the momentum.
If you look at the polls, obviously, there was a huge bump initially for Romney-Ryan after the first debate, but then it's been magnified, in part because of the way the Democrats reacted. A pollster told my friend E.J. Dionne that when Republicans hate a poll, they want to kill the pollsters. When Democrats hate a poll, they want to kill themselves.
DAVID BROOKS: And so they have been reacting with this emotion which I think has magnified the effect.
And so the momentum for Romney-Ryan has continued. So this is the night that you will either accelerate that momentum or reverse it.
MARK SHIELDS: Republicans, Judy, who just 10 days ago were savaging all polls as part of a sinister liberal conspiracy to discourage the Romney-Ryan are now trumpeting them...
MARK SHIELDS: ... every survey that comes out.
But there's no question there's been a total change in morale in the two -- in the entire campaign.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Just in a week.
MARK SHIELDS: Just in a week.
The president didn't show up last week. He said let Joe be Joe in that little clip we saw to Diane Sawyer. I don't know who Barack was last Wednesday. And I think a lot of Democrats are just troubled by that. They were very, very disappointed.
And Republicans are emboldened. Last week, Democrats suffered from overconfidence. They thought President Obama would go in and wipe the floor with Mitt Romney. And obviously they were very, very wrong.
But this week, by a 13-1 margin, Republicans think that Paul Ryan will win. And that's -- so, there, the overconfidence factor now is on the Republican side.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So what does that mean Joe Biden needs to do tonight?
DAVID BROOKS: I think they each have an assignment.
I think Paul Ryan's assignment is to show that they can be bipartisan. One of the things that really helped Romney, people -- he was portrayed as this sort of right-wing wacko who was never going to compromise. But he said, look, I can compromise. And when you looked that the data on how people watched that debate, it was that theme he hit that really propelled him and it was also something the Obama campaign was completely unprepared for.
So I think one of the things Paul Ryan has to say, yes, I'm a competent guy, too. I'm flexible. I have my beliefs, but I know how to deal. And so that would be him.
For Joe Biden, there are two things. One is to fill in the blank of what the Obama administration wants to do the next four years, and not only to lay out some policies, but to lay out an energy and a passion to win and do those things. And then finally he probably has to use the Medicare issue with the Ryan plan, the Romney-Ryan plan. Is it politically unpopular? And he has to bring that up.
JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see it, Mark? What do they each need to do tonight?
MARK SHIELDS: I would say with Paul Ryan that he's got to keep it going.
The Republicans are on a roll right now. They feel they're on a roll. But I would say he should heed the council of Robert Frost to John Kennedy who said, be more Boston and less Harvard to Jack Kennedy. I would say be more Wisconsin, more Waukesha, than Washington, D.C.
He cannot start to try to give in words his PowerPoints.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Budget Committee talk, you mean.
MARK SHIELDS: Budget Committee talk.
If he mentions sequestration once or the committee as a whole or the motion to recommit, eyes will glaze over and their cause will be hurt. And he's got to somehow play -- do what David said, stay on the offense, but at the same time, he has got to be able to parry the differences between him and Governor Romney, and especially the changes that Governor Romney -- there are several incarnations that he's gone through.
He's got to be able to I think parry that, not to get into the weeds on it, but to be able to parry it. As far as Joe Biden, I think he's got a tougher, but in many ways more simple -- he's got to lift the spirits of dispirited Democrats.
I think he does that -- he is the happy warrior, very much so, a lot more so than the president. But he has to play both offense and defense. Last week, the president played neither. By defense, he's got to be able to say this is what we have accomplished and point out especially in states like Ohio and Michigan the difference the auto industry has made and student loans being -- the interest being removed and the preexisting condition.
All of those things, he's got to do it. And at the same time, he's got to go on offense as far as the other side is concerned to make -- question about Mitt Romneyand the Romney/Ryan and the fractures and fissures within their own program.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And the other thing tonight, it is 90 minutes, David, but tonight we are told the questions are going to alternate between domestic and foreign policy. How does that change what we should look for?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, we can all expect that Joe Biden will do a lot better on the foreign policy. It's never been Paul Ryan's main interest and it's always been Joe Biden's main interest.
So you would think he would have some natural advantage there. One quick disagreement I have with Mark is I'm afraid Ryan is going to go too Waukesha. I think -- I'm struck by the fact that the two most important performances of this campaign, Bill Clinton's and Mitt Romney's in that debate, were both the two wonkiest.
Somehow, I think in a moment of great cynicism, people like to be talked to as in a serious PowerPoint sort of way in which a lot of us in the media think, oh, it's over their heads, they are going to be bored. But I think a lot of people actually are responding to that this year.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, don't be folksy?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, I wouldn't go too far away from the statistics and data, which is Ryan's home turf.
MARK SHIELDS: The difference is Bill Clinton used the word arithmetic.
I have never heard Paul Ryan use the word arithmetic. Arithmetic is a word that is understood by people who only went to the sixth grade or people who have Ph.D.s. It's one thing to be wonky and at the same time not to do it in obscure language that's off-putting.
But, on, I do think as well that the question of a vice president is always, Judy, he's Mr. August when he's chosen. Joe Lieberman was a popular choice in 2000. But the real test of any vice president is Mr. October, what he does in this debate. Paul Ryan was a popular choice among many conservatives, but this is his moment of truth. And there's going to be a lot of nervousness.
DAVID BROOKS: But I think you would agree it's never about them. They have got to talk about the number ones.
MARK SHIELDS: No, no, but, I mean, their performance.
DAVID BROOKS: Right.
MARK SHIELDS: And you recall Joe Lieberman did a, can't we all get along, as did Jack Kemp in 1996?
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, in three hours, it all gets under way, and the two of you are going to be with us for the whole thing, Mark Shields, David Brooks.
MARK SHIELDS: Wonderful.