Vice Presidential Debate: From Also-Ran to Possible Game-Changer

Debate stakes for Paul Ryan and Joe Biden have never been higher.

ByABC News
October 9, 2012, 1:36 PM

Oct. 10, 2012— -- Could the fate of the election really come down to this, a debate between vice presidential candidates Paul Ryan and Joe Biden?

Following last week's surprising presidential debate in which Mitt Romney not only handedly beat President Obama but managed to turn the win into a real polling advantage, all eyes are on the running mates.

The second-tier matchup is turning into first-rate drama. The stakes for Thursday's debate in Kentucky are so high, even "Saturday Night Live" is joking about it.

Tune in to on Thursday for livestreaming coverage of the 2012 Vice Presidential Debate moderated by ABC's Martha Raddatz in Danville, Ky. Coverage kicks off with ABC News' live preview show at noon, and full debate coverage begins at 8 p.m.

"Is there anything more exciting than Joe Biden thinking it's up to him to get the lead back?" quipped comedian Seth Myers.

Historically, presidential debates do little to change voters' minds. According to a Gallup study, only two debates between 1960 and 2004, those in 1980 and 2000, moved the meter and quantifiably changed the direction of the polls.

And vice presidential debates do even less.

But polls following this year's first presidential debate showed an outsized bump for Romney, making up an eight-point deficit to pull neck-and-neck, or even ahead of Obama in national polls, despite weeks of missteps.

If Biden were to go down against Ryan, it could throw the Obama campaign off its psychological game in the last critical weeks, said Nicolle Wallace, a Republican strategist and ABC News consultant.

"Considering that Obama has now mentioned his own dismal performance every single day since it happened, he's placed Biden in a very tough spot," Wallace said.

"While V.P. debates don't historically determine much of anything in terms of voter behavior, they can have a huge psychological impact on a campaign that's reeling, in this case Obama's, or a campaign that's already got a head of steam--in this case--the Romney-Ryan ticket," she said.

There have only been televised presidential debates since 1976. Few of those are particularly memorable, and none have been found to have impacted the outcome of the race.

Democrat Lloyd Bentsen famously shot back at Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice presidential debate after Quayle compared himself to John F. Kennedy.

"Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy," Bentsen said.

While the quip is long remembered, it didn't do much to help Bentsen or running mate Michael Dukakis at the time. Quayle and running mate George H.W. Bush carried 40 out of 50 states that year.

In 1992, Adm. James Stockdale, Ross Perot's running mate, gaffed in the first minutes of the debate asking: "Who am I? Why am I here?" The line was supposed to be a joke, but fell flat when Stockdale missed a question because he failed to turn on his hearing aid and generally looked out of sorts.

Biden is known for sometimes putting his foot in his mouth, but he is also the most experienced politician in the race, who has been dozens of debates in his three decades in Congress.

He was expected to make a gaffe in 2004 in his face off with Sarah Palin, but instead came off as polished and agile.

Given the stakes and Obama's failure to parry Romney's jabs, or respond to baseless accusations, the stakes for Biden could very well be higher than ever.