WASHINGTON - All eyes are on the U.S. vice-presidential debate in Kentucky on Thursday as Joe Biden —President Barack Obama's gaffe-friendly No. 2 — squares off against Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney's ultra-conservative running mate with a newfound reputation as a truth-stretcher.
Vice-presidential showdowns don't generally generate much buzz or carry high stakes. But amid the roller-coaster ride of the 2012 campaign — and the aftermath of Obama's lacklustre debate performance last week in Denver — the Biden-Ryan showdown could be pivotal.
Biden, Democratic insiders say, is looking to avenge his boss.
Ryan, on the other hand, is hoping to give Romney's suddenly surging campaign yet another shot in the arm with less than a month until the Nov. 6 vote.
Both men have been undergoing intense debate prep for weeks, working closely with aides and colleagues to hone their skills.
Biden, a longtime senator before he became vice-president, has decades of debate experience, and was widely considered the victor in his first VP debate four years ago against Sarah Palin.
Ryan doesn't have that type of high-profile debate experience, but he's a good speaker and well-versed in the issues, unlike Palin in 2008.
"We know each other; we've gotten along quite well over the years," Ryan, a Wisconsin congressman, said of Biden in a pre-debate interview with CNN. "I like Joe personally quite a bit; I just disagree with his policies."
Obama, meantime, had this advice for Biden: "I think Joe just needs to be Joe," he told ABC's Diane Sawyer on the eve of the showdown.
Earlier this week, the president predicted Biden would be "terrific."
The 90-minute clash will place at odds two men of different generations and wildly varying political philosophies.
Biden, 69, has long been a passionate defender of the American social safety net.
Ryan, 42, is an Ayn Rand aficionado who has proposed deep budget cuts and turning Medicare, one of America's most cherished entitlement programs, into a privatized voucher system.
They're also the first two Catholics to square off in a national political debate — although the strains of Catholicism they each embrace are also starkly different.
Biden is pro-choice and in favour of same-sex marriage; Ryan is avidly pro-life and opposes gay matrimony. The Washington Post dubbed the Kentucky debate the "Catholic Thrilla in Manila."
Romney surprised pundits in August when he tapped the socially conservative Ryan as his running mate, given he was expected to opt for a more moderate No. 2. Ryan's Medicare proposals were expected to cause Romney trouble in the crucial swing state of Florida, home to millions of seniors.
Ryan was also harshly criticized — mostly by liberals, but also by some conservatives — for his speech to the Republican National Convention in Tampa in late August. Some of his allegations against Obama during his remarks were significantly exaggerated.
Biden, meantime, has caused the administration some occasional moments of embarrassment, most notably in May, when he came out in strong support of same-sex marriage. That was at odds with Obama's stance at the time, and was thought to have forced the president to announce his change of heart earlier than planned.
As debate day dawned, debate-related titters and taunts were already in full force.
Time magazine opted to publish photos of Ryan lifting weights, shot late last year. Wearing a backwards baseball cap and sporting a goofy look on his face, the photo collection soon went viral and became the subject of ridicule on various social media platforms.
Shortly after Time published the workout photos, the Twitter account @PaulRyansBicep was born.
"Fact check this: I can bench press more than you," one tweet read.
Some Fox News commentators, meantime, were crying foul over the choice of debate moderator, ABC's Martha Raddatz. They accuse the award-winning journalist of being biased towards the Obama-Biden ticket after revelations that Obama attended her wedding in the early 1990s.