ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. Rep. Paul Ryan has made news in the past as the author of budgets so controversial they've played major roles in campaigns far from his Wisconsin House district. But his debate this week with Vice President Joe Biden catapults him into a whole new league, requiring him to show he's capable of leading the nation.
"What debate?" Ryan, 42, joked with reporters over the weekend as he took his wife and three children to pick out pumpkins for Halloween at Apple Holler, a southern Wisconsin orchard and farm. "You know, I'd better get started. You just reminded me," he said, laughing.
In reality, Ryan had just come off more than three days of intense debate preparation in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, featuring former solicitor general Ted Olson as a stand-in for Biden, and more than a month of studying briefing materials and practicing with aides.
GOP nominee Mitt Romney did so well last week against President Obama that some of the pressure on Ryan has eased. On the other hand, Biden's main task is to repair some of the damage done by Obama's listless performance - which means he won't be cutting Ryan any breaks.
Ryan himself has said that Romney's successful performance actually raises the bar for him. He has told several media outlets that after Obama's showing, he expects Biden to come at him "like a cannonball."
Biden's preparations include a "debate camp" in his hometown of Wilmington, Del. that kicked into high gear Tuesday. Before the last-minute cram sessions - made more urgent by Obama's weakness last week - he had done two mock debates with Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Ryan's stand-in.
"What I've been doing mostly quite frankly is studying up on Congressman Ryan's positions on the issues. And Gov. Romney has embraced at least everything I can see," Biden told reporters last week. He said he is focusing on factual accuracy. Biden has also read Ryan's book about rising conservative leaders, Young Guns, and watched his interviews and speeches, mostly since Ryan has become a vice presidential candidate, a campaign official said.