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Despite age gap, some similarities between Biden and Ryan

When Vice President Joe Biden faces off against Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, viewers might expect to see something like a reprise of silver-haired Sen. Lloyd Bentsen meeting (and by most accounts, conquering) GOP veep candidate Sen. Dan Quayle, 25 years his junior, in their 1988 debate.

Or they might expect another older vs. younger confrontation like the 2004 debate when a somber, intimidating Vice President Dick Cheney bested Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. John Edwards, 12 years his junior.

Like those past encounters, there will be a stark age contrast between the two candidates in Thursday’s debate.

Nati Harnik / AP

Vice President Joe Biden speaks in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012.

Biden, who will celebrate his 70th birthday next month, had his first big debate back in 1972 – he was then 29 years old – against Republican Sen. J. Caleb Boggs, who had been a fixture in Delaware politics for a quarter of a century. Ryan was two years old in 1972 when Biden defeated Boggs and launched his national political career.

Slideshow: Biden on the campaign trail

But despite the nearly 28-year gap between Biden and Ryan, the two are similar in important ways. Both are politicians who earned their electoral success at an early age and then settled themselves into long careers on Capitol Hill. Biden was elected to the Senate at age 29 and Ryan was elected to the House at 28.

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NBC's Chuck Todd explains that many viewers experience the presidential debates as a visual indicator of leadership ability rather than a way to dissect the candidates' policies, something that both Joe Biden and Paul Ryan will need to keep in mind during their preparations.

While Ryan has the reputation of being the consummate PowerPoint-loving policy nerd, Biden also enjoys regaling voters and reporters with details of the 1994 crime bill and his idea of federal money to help local government hire police or detailing the diplomatic parleys he’s engaged in with foreign leaders.

 When he ran for the Democratic nomination in 2008, Biden told voters at Iowa campaign stops about his work to speed development of the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, the Marine vehicle able to withstand improvised explosive devices.

While often regarded as more of a voluble campaigner and backslapper than a scholar, when given a brief and a mission, Biden works to master it, as he did as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee when he helped defeat Ronald Reagan’s 1987 Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork.

Staff / Reuters

Vice President Joe Biden speaking in Charlotte, North Carolina September 6, 2012, and Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, speaking in Tampa, Florida, August 29, 2012, are shown in this combination photo.

 “Biden’s performance was remarkable not only as a combination of thoughtful questioning and self-restraint,” said Boston Globe reporter Ethan Bronner in his book about the Bork battle. Biden’s performance was also remarkable because his 1988 presidential bid was collapsing at the very moment the Bork hearings were taking place. (Biden was driven from the race because he’d lifted phrases from a speech by British politician Neil Kinnock.)

Biden’s command of the Bork battle illustrates a recurring phenomenon in his career: his penchant for gaffes and odd quips often makes people underestimate him.

Despite some similarities between Biden and Ryan, in one basic sense they’re opposites: Biden has spent his career working to expand the scope and reach of federal government – as he did with the 1994 crime bill. But Ryan has dedicated most of his congressional career to attempts to put limits to federal power and spending especially on the entitlement programs that Democrats such as Biden created and expanded.

First Thoughts: The pressure is on

Biden’s forte is putting a human face on those very same entitlement programs. Campaigning in Iowa in September, Biden said, referring to the Medicare redesign proposed by Ryan and Romney, “They're going to give your mom a voucher, a coupon, that's worth a certain amount of money … and they're going to say, 'Ma, go out into the insurance market and get the best deal you can get.'” The Romney-Ryan Medicare overhaul would apply only to people born in 1958 and later.

Biden seems more of a natural than Ryan at delivering clever attack lines, as in 2007 when he called former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani “probably the most unqualified man since George Bush to seek the presidency.”

Slideshow: On the campaign trail with Ryan 

But going back nearly 30 years, Biden’s friends have long known that his impulsive speaking sometimes put him in jeopardy. In 1986, when Biden was edging toward running for the Democratic presidential nomination, William Cohen, a Biden pal and then a Republican senator from Maine, told The National Journal, “Still inside of him is that boyish quality of wanting to say exactly what he wants to say. There's a lot of devil in Joe."

That remains true today – see for example the famous “this is a big f---ing deal” comment he made to President Barack Obama at the signing of the Affordable Care Act.

Since 2009 Biden has had to be the loyal lieutenant who must subordinate his ego and restrain his penchant for shoot-from-the-hip remarks.

''In the good old days when I was a senator, I was my own man,'' Mr. Biden said in 2011. ''But now whatever I say is attributed to the administration. I finally learned that.''

Obama aides were reported to be unhappy last May when Biden get ahead of the president on same-sex marriage, telling NBC’s David Gregory, “I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying one other, are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties.”  The president gave his personal support to same-sex marriages just days after Biden’s comments. 

On Meet the Press today, the vice president discussed the administration's position in the same-sex marriage debate.

In 2009, Obama assigned Biden the task of overseeing spending in the $830 billion stimulus and called on him to be his envoy and fact-finder on Afghanistan.

“The first thing the president asked me to do after we got elected, before we got sworn in, he said, Joe, I want you to go to Afghanistan, give me an independent assessment of what you think we should do, come back and report,” Biden told CNN’s Larry King in 2010, adding “I used to be Chairman of (the Senate) Foreign Relations (Committee).”

Biden emphasized that “I've known President Karzai for a long, long time.”

Since January 2009, Biden has held meetings with over 120 foreign leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and Chinese President Hu Jintao. In addition, he has had over 100 phone calls with more than 50 foreign leaders.

And at home, Biden has served as Obama’s envoy to labor unions -- one of the Democrat’s crucial constituencies.

Campaigning in Ohio last year, Biden told a labor audience that in the face of legislation proposed by GOP governors to curb public employees right to collective bargaining, "You are the only folks keeping the barbarians from the gates," Biden said.

Biden has emphasized that one of his important roles since becoming vice president has been to serve as the final sounding board and counselor when Obama makes the fateful military and foreign policy decisions.

Vice President Joe Biden talks about bin Laden's death and details his own national security policies.

“I get to be the last guy to be with the president,” Biden told NBC’s David Gregory last May. Even though Biden opposed the raid to get Osama bin Laden, he said he told Obama, “Follow your instincts, Mr. President. Your instincts have been close to unerring.”