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.
Both men say they see the debate as a chance to lay out a choice for the country. "Forget about winning or losing. What I hope to get out of this debate is to show the country our ideas, the differences we have, so that they can have a really clear choice to make in November," Ryan told Wisconsin reporter Mike Gousha over the weekend.
Biden has made clear he intends to focus on the budgets Ryan has written as chairman of the House Budget Committee, which call for large tax cuts, repeal of the Affordable Care Act, caps on Medicaid and food stamp spending, and transformation of Medicare into a voucher program for seniors. "The thing about Congressman Ryan is he has been straightforward up to now about everything -- all the significant changes he wants to make. We have a fundamentally different view on a whole range of issues. So I hope it will be a good debate," Biden told reporters.
It's important to the Romney campaign that Ryan answer questions as Romney's running mate, not as the author of those budgets. "There's one president. There's one presidential candidate. There's one person at the top of the ticket," Romney spokesman Kevin Madden told reporters traveling with the campaign Tuesday.
"So, the focus again will be on what Gov. Romney's plan is for reforming Washington, what his plan is for... lowering tax rates, reforming the tax code so that we get more job creation," he said. "And I think what Congressman Ryan will do will reinforce all those principles, talk about it in bigger, bolder terms about what the two of them hope to do as a team, reforming Washington."
Romney's campaign has been seeking to lower expectations for Ryan by stressing Biden's experience - 18 presidential or vice presidential debates over the years, 14 in 2008 alone, when Biden ran for the Democratic nomination. "Joe Biden is as experienced a debater as anyone in national politics, and he has a deep resume in domestic policy and foreign affairs. This is Congressman Ryan's first time on this big stage, so we're taking preparation seriously," said Ryan spokesman Brendan Buck.
In a stump speech Monday in Toledo, meant as a complement to Romney's foreign-policy address that morning in Virginia, Ryan's learning curve was apparent. He'll never be as marinated in the subject as Biden, who was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before becoming vice president. But Ryan has been studying two huge binders of briefing materials under the tutelage of Romney adviser Dan Senor, and his delivery was noticeably more fluid than his more halting, less confident forays on the subject a month ago.
Sarah Huisenga contributed.