Paul Ryan boosts the profile of Centre College's vice-presidential debate

gkocher1@herald-leader.comAugust 13, 2012 

The 2000 vice-presidential debate at Centre College was billed as the "Thrill in the 'Ville," but the upcoming Oct. 11 contest there might well be "The Smackdown in Town."

National and state political junkies are licking their chops in anticipation of the Danville debate since U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan has been added to the Republican ticket. He'll go up against Vice President Joe Biden.

"The vice presidential debate on Oct. 11 at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, will likely be the most important of the ticket-vs.-ticket debates," The Atlantic's Washington editor-at-large Steve Clemons wrote in a Web piece. "This is because the divide between Paul Ryan's political agenda, as defined by his budget, and the smart investment strategy that Joe Biden and his former economic adviser Jared Bernstein, have been pushing, will be starker than any of the issues that Obama and Romney will debate."

Political science professors and commentators around Kentucky said the Biden-Ryan match-up at Centre's Newlin Hall will be must-see listening and watching. Biden-Ryan comes after the first face-off between their bosses, President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney, on Oct. 3 and before the final two Oct. 16 and 22.

The Centre outing "is probably going to be one of the better debates," predicted Scott Lasley, associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University. "Because Ryan can't really run from his positions, and neither can Biden. Both of them are reasonably bright. Biden is more prone to going off track, so that could be interesting. A lot of times you'd expect the more inexperienced, younger candidate to be the underdog, but I don't think anybody expects Paul Ryan to be an underdog in this type of setting."

Lasley doesn't see Ryan's lack of foreign policy experience as a weakness.

"He's been in Congress long enough where he's been around debating these issues," Lasley said.

Ryan, 42, is a fresh face who can "effectively articulate" specifics and who appears eager to debate the role of government, said Dewey Clayton, political science professor at the University of Louisville.

"I think that Ryan has energized that Tea Party base, which is strong here in Kentucky," Clayton said. "And so clearly that is bringing the new level of excitement to the Republican Party. Witness the crowds that Romney and Ryan had this past weekend, which were much larger than any of the crowds Romney had ... previously. And, with the Tea Party having a substantial presence here in Kentucky, that will clearly heighten anticipation for the forthcoming debate as well."

Ryan is known for his provocative proposals to overhaul Medicare and reduce the budget deficit. And while everyone may not agree with how Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, would cut the budget, "he's been quite specific with how he would reduce the size of government. So it's something concrete, and it's something that will offer an alternative to the American voters," Clayton said.

Some of those Ryan proposals provide fodder for Democrats and Biden, who is experienced at debating on a national stage.

Biden, 69, also "will have somewhat an edge" on foreign policy issues, given that he was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before he became vice president, Clayton said.

Democratic political consultant Danny Briscoe said Ryan puts the Centre debate in "a higher profile."

"It certainly puts the spotlight even brighter on it," Briscoe said. "He's an ideologue; he's a smart guy, very bright. He seems at the moment to have energized Romney and energized the Tea Party people, who are not crazy about Romney because he's been all over the map on things that they're against.

"On the other hand, you've got Biden, who is a veteran of 35 years of debates on the Senate floor and a foreign policy expert. He's not an ideologue, but this isn't his first rodeo," Briscoe said. "It makes the debate more significant, more important and more newsworthy. Which, being a Centre graduate (class of 1965), I'm glad."

John David Dyche, a Louisville lawyer, conservative columnist, biographer of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and 1982 Centre grad, said "I think it will be a fun debate."

First, Ryan "makes the debate on a college campus much more appealing and interesting for the young people who are affected by the future of entitlements," Dyche said.

"Also, I think it provides a great contrast between a young and dynamic intellectual young Republican like Paul Ryan, who engages on policy details, against an older and gaffe-prone Democratic vice presidential candidate who doesn't really engage on policy details," said Dyche, who would prefer Ryan as the presidential candidate.

More attention to the debate means more attention on Centre, which reaped increases in enrollment and alumni giving after the 2000 debate.

Clarence Wyatt, special assistant to the president at Centre, said Monday that Ryan's placement on the ticket "certainly seems to be getting a lot of comment in the national press and the political pundits since the announcement was made Saturday morning. Obviously, we look forward to a civil and substantive debate."

Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety

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