Biden and Ryan: Running Mates Gone Wild!

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The right-hand men on the tickets are routinely overshadowing their senior partners and throwing the campaigns off message.

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Associated Press

The conventional wisdom that has long dictated vice presidential politicking can be boiled down to a pair of hard and fast rules. Number One: do no harm. Number Two: never allow the bottom of the ticket to overshadow the top of the ticket.

Apparently Joe Biden and Paul Ryan never got the memo.

Here we are, fewer than three months removed from Election Day, and Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have entered full-fledged campaign mode, jetting breathlessly between battleground states to raise money, energize supporters and make their case to undecided voters. Yet for much of the past week, their efforts have been largely eclipsed by their running mates, whose activities have, for better or worse, commanded considerably more attention from the press.

Consider the events of this week:

Monday morning's headlines were dominated by Romney's pick of Ryan -- including the dramatic VP rollout Saturday morning in Virginia, the enormous crowds they attracted Sunday morning in North Carolina and the emotional homecoming Ryan received Sunday night in his native Wisconsin. The initial media fixation with Ryan was to be expected, as the VP introduction is a seminal moment of any presidential campaign. Moreover, Ryan wasn't the boring running mate many expected. He's young, handsome and articulate, with a personality that's uniquely charming and an agenda that's incredibly polarizing. Romney's campaign fully expected -- and embraced -- Ryan's lengthy media honeymoon. Still, they wanted the focus kept on Romney -- which quickly proved easier said than done.

As Romney departed for campaign events in Florida, Ryan traveled from Wisconsin to neighboring Iowa -- where, not coincidentally, Obama was embarking on a three-day tour of the state that launched him to political stardom four years earlier. As the day unfolded, it became obvious that all eyes in the political world were on Ryan. While Obama and Romney drew large crowds at their respective stops in Iowa and Florida, Ryan's solo campaign debut at the Iowa State Fair -- where he spoke to thousands of supporters from the Fair's famous "soap box" -- drew substantially more media coverage. The next morning, when The Hotline sorted its news clips from Monday, Ryan's stack was more than twice the size of Romney's. It was, at least in the short term, a sign of things to come.

Tuesday started normally enough, with Obama's beer-soaked Iowa kickoff and Romney's Medicare Q&A in Miami leading the newest wave of headlines. That didn't last long, however: by mid-morning, the Twittersphere was abuzz with reports of Ryan's event in Colorado drawing an overflow crowd, adding to the media circus surrounding Romney's new running mate and distracting from the presidential nominee's concurrent campaign event in Ohio's coal country. Later Tuesday night, while Romney campaigned in Miami, Ryan met behind closed doors with casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and other GOP mega-donors in Las Vegas -- another event that attracted considerable media attention. Romney found himself throughout the day Tuesday being overshadowed once again, but at least Ryan was generating positive buzz -- which is more than Obama could say for his running mate.

By Tuesday afternoon, Biden had transformed the presidential campaign into a media feeding frenzy after he told an audience in Danville, Virginia -- a city that's roughly 48 percent black -- that Romney and Republicans will "unchain Wall Street." Biden then lowered his voice and growled: "They're gonna put y'all back in chains." Within minutes Team Romney had pounced and Team Obama was doing damage control, with deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter telling MSNBC, "I appreciate the faux outrage from the Romney campaign .... We have no problem with those comments."

But Romney did have a problem with those comments, and he used a speech in Ohio Tuesday night to condemn Biden's remark in some of the strongest language we've heard from Romney to date. "His campaign and his surrogates have made wild and reckless accusations that disgrace the office of the presidency," Romney said, referencing Biden's comments. "This is what an angry and desperate presidency looks like." Reporters marveled at how Biden's words had provoked unprecedented passion from Romney when he accused the president of running a "campaign of division and anger and hate."

By Wednesday morning, the fallout from Biden's comment -- and the awkward, fumbling explanation he offered thereafter -- was dominating the news cycle. Pundits from the left, right, and center were dissecting and debating Biden's words, their meaning, their impact on the race, and, most obnoxiously, whether it was time for Obama to find himself a new running mate. For the president's campaign, the most damaging aspect of the renewed speculation about Biden's off-message moment was that it took Obama, well, off message. While campaigning in battleground Iowa, the president was forced to defend his vice president from reporters and pundits who should have been discussing his electoral advantages in the Hawkeye State. Obama's explanation did little to quell the controversy, however, as by Thursday afternoon everyone from David Axelrod to John McCain to Rahm Emanuel had weighed in on whether it was time for Biden to go. Even White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was forced to address the topic from the White House podium, lending some level of legitimacy to the question of Biden's future with the campaign. And lost amid the echo chamber was the fact that Obama's Iowa trip was suddenly little more than an afterthought for the Beltway press corps.

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, Ryan stole the spotlight again Wednesday evening in Ohio, where he spoke aggressively about the looming battle over Medicare. While Romney held private fundraisers in North Carolina and Alabama, Ryan was front-and-center in the public eye, telling a crowd of more than 5,000 people at Miami University: "We want this debate, we need this debate, and we will win this debate." Ryan's audacious remarks were placed prominently in newspapers across the Buckeye State on Thursday, and played repeatedly on the cable news shows, interrupted only by -- you guessed it -- the latest commentary on Biden's "chains" remark.

All of this raises the question: What happened to those rules governing vice presidential politics?

To be sure, this week will likely prove to be the exception rather than the rule. The media fascination with Romney's new running mate will begin to fade, and the breathless coverage of Biden's gaffes has a shelf-life typically limited to 72 hours. Still, it's fascinating that in the post-Palin era -- one defined by the popular strategic notion that a running mate should be little more than a quiet, complementary partner to the nominee -- we have spent the first week of two-on-two action focusing primarily on the Robins of this race rather than the Batmans

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Tim Alberta is editor of Hotline Last Call!, the afternoon newsletter of National Journal Hotline.

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