Vice presidential candidates Paul Ryan and Joe Biden.

Vice presidential candidates Paul Ryan and Joe Biden. Credit: AP, 2012

The potential for gaffes and gotchas alone should be enough to make tonight’s vice presidential debate entertaining.

Vice President Joe Biden is a gaffe-meister and Republican challenger Paul Ryan has been tagged for getting his facts wrong often enough to put him at risk of embarrassing gotchas. And, like the sporting events these political debates have come to mimic, some people will tune in simply to see who wins.

Usually that’s pretty much the story of these undercard bouts. But tonight's meeting in Danville, Ky., is no typical vice presidential skirmish. The stakes have soared because it’s the first face-off between the tickets since Republican Mitt Romney’s strong performance and President Barack Obama’s lackluster showing last week in Denver. That first presidential debate gave Romney a decided bump up in the polls and the edge in momentum.

So in addition to avoiding foot-in-mouth moments, each candidate has an important list of things he needs to accomplish in the 90-minute brawl.

Biden needs to arrest the Romney-Ryan momentum, and reverse it if possible. To do that he will have to aggressively defend the administration’s record on the economy, health care, national security and other key challenges. He has to answer what will be different in a second term by clearly laying out where the administration wants to take the country.

While doing all that, Biden also needs to challenge Ryan on any slippery facts, nail him on departures from previous positions and draw attention to the lack of details on issues such as tax reform and Medicare that Ryan may try to obfuscate. And he has to be likable.

Ryan’s task is just as demanding. He has to maintain the momentum Romney seized in the presidential debate. To do that he’ll need to hammer Biden on the Obama administration’s record. But with the economy showing signs of life and consumer confidence growing, talking about the last four years won’t be enough.

Ryan also has to tell voters where his ticket wants to take the country. He’ll have to provide pesky details regarding their plans on tax reform, Medicare and deficit reduction, what they want in place of Obamacare and how they would regulate the financial services industry to prevent another collapse if Republicans scrap the Dodd-Frank Act reforms.

While doing all that, Ryan has to keep his facts straight, avoid opportunistic inconsistencies with previous positions and provide more detail without opening inconvenient daylight between his positions and those of his running mate. And it would help if he’s charming.

Beyond that, voters need to hear about other issues that didn’t come up in the presidential debate. For instance immigration reform, abortion rights, the Middle East (including the threat of a nuclear Iran and the possibility of war to avoid it), the broader

Middle East, defense spending and how to pay for the investments in infrastructure, education and energy the nation needs.

And if all that isn’t enough, getting off a memorable, debate-defining line — one ordinary voters will be quoting the next day — would be a real bonus.

Pictured at top: Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, and incumbent Democrat Joe Biden. (AP Photos)

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