Ryan’s Debate Strategy
The vice-presidential candidate planned to stay above the fray.

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Robert Costa

Did Paul Ryan prepare for Biden’s bluster?

You bet, his aides say, and they credit Ted Olson, a former United States solicitor general, for coaching the Republican veep candidate.

For weeks, the 72-year-old Olson played Biden during mock debates. During intense 90-minute sessions, Olson mimicked every mannerism of the vice president, from his hand gestures to his sneer.


“I don’t think Ted ever got out of character,” a Ryan insider recalls.

Early on, Olson’s theatrics forced Ryan to put down the briefing books and grapple with Biden’s personality.

“Ryan is a former congressional staffer, and that really showed during the prep,” a Romney adviser says. “He loves to read, debate, and study.”

But knowing Biden’s positions wasn’t enough. Ryan needed a strategy to deal with Biden’s interruptions and put-downs.

Eventually, Ryan, Olson, and the rest of the team settled on a game plan: Ryan would ignore the slights. He would resist the bait. He’d stay above the fray.

It was an easy decision. In private, Ryan acknowledged that he’d never be comfortable if he concentrated on responding to Biden’s asides.

The two politicians aren’t close, but Ryan was a Senate staffer in the early 1990s and quickly became familiar with Biden’s bullying. Ryan sought a contrast.

“[Ryan] never wanted to compete with the vice president on humor,” a Ryan adviser says. “He didn’t want to memorize quips. He wanted to focus on policy.”

Inside Ryan World, the chief objective wasn’t necessarily beating Biden, but making voters comfortable with Ryan’s knowledge and character.

“The question is always: ‘How does this look on TV?’” says former Missouri senator John Danforth. “Ryan is excellent on substance across the board. You hope people respond to his measured approach.”

At 42 years old, Ryan is aware that some voters think he looks too young to be president. By mastering foreign policy and keeping his cool, Ryan believed he could win over skeptics.

“The campaign saw this as the third obstacle,” says a source close to Ryan. “For the veep, the rollout, the convention speech, and the debate are what matters.”

In early September, Ryan reviewed the vice-presidential debate from four years ago. Facing Sarah Palin, Biden was relatively low-key, almost friendly. Ryan took pages of notes.

But after Romney impressed at the first debate, Ryan shelved the notes. There would be pressure on Biden to be aggressive. “Because they had such a bad debate, Joe Biden is just going to come flying at us,” Ryan told a Detroit radio station. “It seems pretty clear that their new strategy is just basically to call us liars.”

During the final debate prep in Florida, Olson hectored Ryan. He pestered him and smirked. A couple of Ryan confidants wondered if Olson was overdoing it.

On debate night, the real Biden was worse than Olson’s caricature. “I thought Ted was absolutely great, but I didn’t think Biden would put on such a show,” a Ryan official says. “Clearly, I was wrong.”

“Looking back, the best thing that happened during that boot camp was Olson getting under Ryan’s skin,” says a Romney strategist familiar with the sessions. “He knew how to frustrate Ryan. That’s harder than you think.”

“What Olson did, as the old guy from the outside, was shake up Ryan’s inner circle a little bit,” the Romney aide says. “He would poke and prod.”

Early October was when it all came together. Ryan held nearly a week of debate prep at Wintergreen, a mountain resort in central Virginia.

He also connected by phone with Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, who has been playing Obama for Romney. Olson later had a longer conversation with Portman about the art of debate-prep impersonations.

By the time Ryan arrived at Centre College in Danville, Ky., the debate site, his talking points were thoroughly rehearsed, and he was prepared to grin and bear a Biden onslaught.

“Everybody knew Paul would be the adult up there, the gentleman,” the Ryan adviser says. “Engaging Biden on the small stuff was never part of the discussion.”

On stage, Biden laughed and harrumphed his way through the debate, and Ryan hardly flinched. He’d smile and nod, but he didn’t call out the vice president beyond a handful of light remarks.  

Olson had done his job. Ryan was more than ready to answer the questions, and, thanks to the weeks of badgering by a wise lawyer, he wasn’t unnerved.

“[Biden] looked sort of like an arrogant Cheshire cat,” says Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Ryan ally. “He had that sort of big grin, that he thought he knew more than everybody else in the whole place, and I don’t think that came off well.”

After the network cameras cut away, Ryan and his family walked backstage. His staff was there. They clapped and congratulated him. Ryan shook a couple of hands, and then he spotted Olson.

Olson, finally, was finished playing Biden. To celebrate, Ryan gave the litigator a hearty hug.

Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.