Friday, Sept. 7, 2012 | 2 a.m.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As President Barack Obama and presidential challenger Mitt Romney accepted their parties’ official nominations these last weeks, they turned to their wives, children, mentors and closest friends to present a more complete picture of their lives, their character and their capacity to serve as president.
But no surrogate has a more important voice in vouching for the potential next president than the person the candidate has chosen to share his ticket — and take his place in the event of any unpredictable calamity.
Both campaigns have depicted the choice between Obama and Romney as a stark one. But the differences between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan are arguably even broader, especially when it comes to the sort of supportive role each has been tapped to play for his party.
“Ryan brings more substance in defining his ticket than does Biden … but he’s also far more the lightning rod than Joe Biden,” said Eric Herzik of UNR. “Biden, even with the gaffes, plays a traditional vice-presidential role.”
Both vice-presidential candidates came from blue-collar backgrounds and made their careers in Congress. But the similarities end there.
The two running mates are separated by a generation. Biden, a Baby Boomer, plays the alternating wise uncle or goofy grandpa to Obama’s president. Ryan, a child of the baby bust, plays the young hotshot in Romney’s political start-up.
When it comes to policy, Biden is the populist diplomat with a penchant for foreign policy, while Ryan is the number-cruncher with a wonky fascination with budgets.
On the attack, Biden’s best style is serious but genial, while Ryan’s is being the sharp-eyed pit bull coldly tearing down Obama’s agenda and his image.
Those differences were palpable in their convention addresses.
Ryan’s speech spent far more time dismissing Obama than extolling Romney.
“President Obama is the kind of politician who puts promises on the record, and then calls that the record,” Ryan said during his speech to the Republican National Convention. “None of us have to settle for the best this administration offers: a dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.”
On Thursday night, Biden struck a more uplifting tone as he focused solely on building up his boss — even as he tore down his political enemies.
“The two men seeking to lead this country over the next four years, as I said at the outset, have fundamentally different visions and a completely different values set,” Biden said. “Barack and I, we’ve been through a lot together these four years ... He has never wavered. He never, never backs down.
“I’ve got news for Gov. Romney and Congressman Ryan: Gentlemen, it never makes sense, it’s never been a good bet to bet against the American people,” Biden continued.
Both their audiences have responded to the vice-presidential candidates’ messages with cheers and standing ovations — especially for Biden, who spoke to an excited crowd just before President Barack Obama took the stage.
“Let’s face it: Generally, people vote on personalities,” said Paul Davis, a professor of political science at Truckee Meadows Community College. “You pick a vice-presidential candidate to bring home the bacon, bring home the votes.”
But their styles have also been potential liabilities.
The Obama campaign has had to scramble in recent weeks to respond to critics denouncing Biden for saying the Romney-Ryan ticket would put Americans “back in chains” economically. He’s also known for shooting his mouth off, and even for dropping profanities into formal conversation.
But his supporters seem not to mind.
“Biden connects with real people. He’s very good with blue-collar working class ... but he’s also capable of gaffes,” said Terry Madonna of Franklin & Marshall College. “But he’s one of the few people who can get away with them.”
“He speaks the language everybody else speaks,” said Erin Bilbray-Kohn, a Nevada delegate to the DNC. “I think he is one of the best advocates of the middle class…even his sense of humor is a very middle-class sense of humor. I think he really represents the people.”
Democrats take serious issue, however, with the mistakes Ryan has been making in his recent speeches, which they say are not stylistic — they’re substantive.
“Joe Biden tells it like it is. What he says is the truth, even if I don’t like it,” said Nevada delegate Dick Collins. “Ryan … virtually every other statement he made was not only a lie, but a blatant lie.”
Ryan stretched the truth more than once in his speech to the RNC last week, from blaming Obama for the shutdown of an auto plant in his hometown that had actually closed under the Bush administration, to claiming he runs marathons about an hour faster than he actually does.
“Marathon runners never forget their personal records,” said Assemblyman David Bobzein, a Democratic National Convention delegate from Nevada who who runs a 3:55. “It hit me as indicative — what is the real story with the Ryan plan? Is it Romney’s plan or isn’t it?”
The Ryan budget has become a focal point of the campaign, both for the conservatives who back it and for the liberals who consider it the single biggest existing threat to societal welfare.
“You heard them talk about how much they care about Medicare, how much they wanted to preserve it,” Biden said. “What they really didn’t tell you is they’re not for preserving Medicare at all ... that’s not courage, that’s not even truthful.”
Ryan’s budget is effectively the Republican answer to Obama’s most seminal policy: It undoes Obama’s health care law and makes changes to Medicare and Medicaid, converting the programs from insurance to insurance-subsidy regimes.
“Obamacare, as much as anything else, explains why a presidency that began with such anticipation now comes to such a disappointing close,” Ryan said in his RNC speech, though he did not refer to his budget specifically.
The Republican-led House has strongly backed Ryan’s economic platform, on multiple occasions, and conservatives, inside Congress and out, have embraced it as well.
Romney has benefited from that support by selecting Ryan as his running mate — unlocking a deeper well of support from the conservative wing of his party.
“There was a lot of conservative money sitting on the sidelines (before Ryan was picked),” said Republican political strategist Robert Uithoven.
Biden did not come to the Obama ticket with a budget plan. His initial strength for the ticket four years ago was a foreign policy acumen that Obama lacked. This year, he’s demonstrating a flair for messaging almost up to the level of his boss.
“Yes, the work of recovery is not yet complete. The journey of hope is not yet finished but we are on our way. And the cause of change is not fully accomplished but we are on our way,” Biden said Thursday night. “America’s best days are ahead and yes, we’re on our way.”
Anjeanette Damon contributed to this story.