LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Vice President Joe Biden’s tendency to veer off message, try out accents and dialects, and basically say whatever pops into his mind has made him an easy caricature to many Republican partisans. The very mention of his name at rallies for GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, reliably evokes chuckling or, sometimes, hooting.
Over the last 11 days, conversations with voters at GOP rallies have shown that they expect big things from Ryan on the debate stage Thursday night when the fresher-faced 42-year-old Ryan tangles with the more experienced 69-year-old Biden.
Here’s a sampling of what the Ryan supporters had to say:
On Oct. 1, two days before Romney met President Obama for their first debate, Republicans were still fretting about how their nominee might do. Ryan held a town-hall-style meeting in Clinton, Iowa, the hometown of his wife’s mother. Among those in the crowd were Ron and Janet Kopko, farmers who had driven from Cordova, Ill., a town across the Mississippi River.
“I hope Gov. Romney and Paul Ryan get real tough,” Ron Kopko said. “It may be just nasty in the debates, you know. I hope it will be, yeah. Hey, you’re dealing with a Chicago politician, so you gotta be nasty. I think Paul Ryan will do very well. He’s a lot smarter than Biden, you know. I just hope that Gov. Romney doesn’t come across like a wimp. He’s gotta be tough. The media doesn’t ever ask the president tough questions at all. I think this election is going to turn around how the debates go.”
“I think I want Ryan to show real strength,” Janet Kopko added. “So many people have said to me that Biden is very weak, and when you have somebody very strong against somebody weak, it really shows them up.”
On Oct. 4, the two Republicans teamed up at a rally that drew thousands of people to rural Fishersville, Va. The unexpectedly large crowd caused traffic backups in all directions. Romney’s triumphant performance against Obama the night before had clearly energized Republicans.
“I was absolutely shocked at what a poor job President Obama did,” said Billy Bawn, 74, from nearby Woodstock, Va. “Mitt Romney was energetic, he was alive, and President Obama, I am wondering if he is well.”
Looking forward to Thursday night’s vice presidential debate, Bawn said, “Biden is a joke. I am not too sure he can ever get his foot out of his mouth.”
Charlie Howard, a 62-year-old construction business owner from Ft. Worth, Texas, had waited seven hours to see Romney and Ryan. He predicted a debate win for Ryan.
“Paul Ryan is young, he’s sharp, he knows what he’s doing, where he’s going,” Howard said. “It will be another night like last night. I am sorry, but those guys are not for us, they don’t support us, they don’t like us, business owners like myself. I did make this. Twenty-five years ago, I was out of work with three kids under 10 years old and a big mortgage. Now I employ 115 people. Three years ago, I employed 200 people and I’m struggling right now and nobody’s listening to me. These guys, they’ll help.”
David Wilk, 43, an unemployed data warehousing specialist from Weyer’s Cave, Va., is one of the few voters who is still undecided. (Note to the campaigns!) He said he is looking forward to a substantive VP debate, but he added, “I think that when Joe Biden is on a long enough leash, he will say really stupid things, and I would just like to see that for entertainment value.”
Lowering expectations for Ryan, he said, is “a good strategy.” Ryan is “an articulate man, he’s very intelligent, I think he’s gonna be quick on his feet. I think he’s going to do extremely well,” he added.
Pam Richmond, 59, of Fishersville, Va., also was confident about Ryan’s upcoming performance.
“I believe his strengths are head and shoulders above anything that Biden could offer,” said Richmond, whose husband, Bruce, is the head of the local tea party. “I think that Paul Ryan knows what’s going on and is able to explain it to people in a way they can understand. And I’m not convinced that Joe Biden even knows what’s going on. His name was mentioned here and everybody laughs. That’s kind of embarrassing. Paul Ryan has the enthusiasm and the intelligence and the experience to get things done, to get our country back.”
Dolly Buswell, a 70-year-old retired interior designer and artist from Charlottesville, Va., has confidence in Ryan despite his relative lack of high-stakes debate experience.
“You know what, he speaks from his heart, he knows what he’s talking about so he should do fine,” Buswell said. “Biden and Obama don’t have a record to run on -- they haven’t passed a budget, they’ve vetoed everything that everybody’s come up with and Ryan, that’s what his strong point is.”
Nor does she worry that Biden will outdo him in the area of foreign policy, where Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has so much more experience.
“The foreign policy as we’re looking at it today is an absolute mess, so it would be very hard to stand up and defend it when we’ve got Al Qaeda flags flying over our embassies, and the whole Middle East in an uproar, and the whole rest of the world bankrupt,” she said.
Ruth Hamner, a 69-year-old retired artist from Waynesboro, Va., said Ryan “can think on his feet without falling on his face.” Biden, on the other hand, “is atrocious. His public speaking skills are minimal.”
As for the claim that Biden is more experienced, and can often be charming, she retorted, “Who says that? I’ve never heard that. I think we have brains over history.”
On Monday, before Ryan took the stage in a hangar outside Toledo, Ohio, the crowd watched Romney give a foreign policy speech on a big screen as it was delivered to the Virginia Military Institute. During his speech, as he often does, Ryan joked that where he comes from (Janesville, Wis.) overseas means “across Lake Superior.”
“I love him,” said Sheryl Favorite, a 50-year-old former computer scientist who owns a fine jewelry business in Sylvania, Ohio. “I think he’s an incredible speaker and he’s young. He believes in what they are saying and they can make a difference.”
Murray Stewart, 70, a retired research physicist from Toledo who developed windshield glass, said he thinks Ryan will demonstrate a mastery over detail that will leave Biden in the dust.
“He is going to use Biden as his foil on Thursday. As far as details go, Ryan is going to have all the numbers and the facts up here,” said Stewart, pointing to his head. “Anything that Biden would say, he’s going to turn around and say this and this and this. I heard him talk in Washington against Obama and I just could not believe it. He was right on target in every single detail. I am thinking that detail is going to just snow Biden.”