ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Paul D. Ryan's first debate performance was nothing like his opponent expected. It was 1998, and Mr. Ryan was a 28-year-old Wisconsin congressional aide with powerful Washington mentors. Lydia Spottswood was a nurse and president of the Kenosha City Council, who thought helping her community was fun.
"I had naive ideas about how it worked," said Ms. Spottswood, now 61, whose loss to Mr. Ryan 14 years ago launched him on an unimpeded political career that has led to Centre College in Danville, Ky., where tonight he will meet Vice President Joe Biden in their only debate.
"I thought, 'It's ladies and gentlemen running for Congress,' " Ms. Spottswood said in an interview this week. What she got, she said, was "shock and awe."
This time, Mr. Ryan expects to be the target. "We think he's going to come at me like a cannonball," he told Wisconsin radio host Charlie Sykes on Saturday, after three days of debate preparation in a resort at the foot of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. To the Weekly Standard, Mr. Ryan added: "He'll be in full attack mode, and I don't think he'll let any inconvenient facts get in his way."
As in 2008, where Sarah Palin had to convince voters that she was ready for the demands of the vice president's office, the stakes in this debate are also unusually high. Polls in the last few days show that President Barack Obama's lackluster performance against Mitt Romney altered the race, with states assumed to be leaning comfortably toward Democrats, such as Ohio and perhaps even Michigan, starting to look more favorable for Mr. Romney.
Mr. Ryan's job will be to keep the Republican momentum going until Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney meet for their second debate Tuesday.
The Ryan camp, not surprisingly, is pushing down expectations. An oft-repeated sentiment from Mr. Ryan and his staff: Mr. Biden might suffer from foot-in-mouth disease, but the debate stage effects a magical, if temporary, cure. "He doesn't produce gaffes in these moments," Mr. Ryan told Fox News on Sept. 30.
Mr. Romney told CNN on Tuesday that he thought this would be Mr. Ryan's first debate. "He may have done something in high school," Mr. Romney said. "I don't know." (Mr. Ryan has debated his Democratic opponents, often more than once, in each of his seven House campaigns.)
In the last few days -- as he hunted for votes in Milwaukee, suburban Detroit and Toledo, Ohio -- Mr. Ryan, 42, seemed unruffled by the pending showdown. With journalists and Secret Service agents in tow, he took his children to a pumpkin patch in southeast Wisconsin and shopped for spices for his homemade venison sausage at a favorite Italian deli in Kenosha.
He wandered to the back of his plane at least three times to greet journalists traveling with him and engage in innocuous, off-the-record chitchat about tattoos and rock lyrics. Earnest and congenial, he never uttered a newsworthy word.
Unlike Mr. Biden, 69, he's a talking-point stickler who has yet to be pried off message, which could present a challenge to Mr. Biden and the debate moderator, Martha Raddatz of ABC News.
Mr. Ryan has become adept at talking around the one question that comes at him every day, in interviews and from supporters at town hall meetings: Which loopholes and deductions would he and Mr. Romney eliminate to pay for their proposed, across-the-board 20 percent federal income tax reduction?
Asked about the plan repeatedly by Chris Wallace in a Fox News interview last month, Mr. Ryan said, "It would take me too long to go through all of the math." The question is almost certain to be lobbed at him by Ms. Raddatz or Mr. Biden.
Also, given Mr. Biden's and Ms. Raddatz's deep experience with foreign affairs, there will be questions about America's role in the world, seen by the Obama team as a Ryan vulnerability.
Mr. Ryan's senior aides bristle at the idea that he is unschooled in foreign affairs, and point out that Mr. Ryan's budget committee handles allocations for the departments of State and Defense. "He's voted to send men and women to war," Ryan spokesman Michael Steel said. "He's visited Afghanistan and Iraq, and Walter Reed [Army Medical Center]. He's attended the funerals of men and women from his district who have lost their lives."
Apart from Mr. Ryan's first congressional race, he has never faced a truly threatening debate opponent, said a Wisconsin political scientist who has followed Mr. Ryan's career. "To be blunt, Ryan's never had a candidate here, except for Lydia Spottswood, that he had to be combative for," Carthage College professor Jeff Roberg said.
Last week, Mr. Ryan and his aides were holed up with Mr. Ryan's sparring partner, Theodore B. Olson, 72, a former solicitor general and appellate lawyer who is one of the nation's foremost litigators. A senior Ryan adviser said Mr. Olson was well aware that the vice president was "absolutely a charming man and capable of those flashes of wit and humor and grace that people remember from debates."
Though the vice-presidential candidates get but one encounter, Mr. Ryan has other debate opportunities before Nov. 6. He is also running for re-election in Wisconsin's 1st Congressional District, where his Democratic rival, Rob Zerban, a well-funded former catering firm owner, has launched a petition drive urging Mr. Ryan to debate.
About 53,000 of the district's approximately 435,000 registered voters, Mr. Zerban said, have signed the petition, which was delivered Monday to the congressman's Janesville office. Mr. Ryan, whose seat is considered safe, has demurred.