Biden wins the debate, but Palin regains lost ground

October 2, 2008 

Gov. Sarah Palin's job in the vice presidential debate Thursday night in St. Louis was to assure the nation that she's qualified to be vice president, and if need be, step in as president.

She didn't close the deal, but she showed herself to be poised and confident, still given to generalities but with a better command of her issues.

She also showed grace under extreme pressure. The single vice presidential debate was make or break for Sarah Palin and possibly for the Republican ticket. Her poor performances and ignorance of issues in recent interviews had made even some leading conservative commentators question her place on the ticket, and made many Americans doubt her readiness to help run the country with presidential candidate John McCain.

By Thursday night Americans had more reason to take her seriously than they did Thursday morning.

Gov. Palin proved her claim that she learns fast. Clearly, she'd done more homework and made herself conversant with more national and international concerns, from Iraq and Afghanistan to the current economic crisis.

In scoring the debate, we'd still give the victory to Sen. Joe Biden for greater command of detail, his success in linking McCain's policies to the failures of the Bush administration and for his ability to rebut Gov. Palin's assertions. For example, Palin argued strongly for McCain's $5,000 health care insurance tax credit. Biden blew that plan out of the water by explaining the costs. McCain would tax insurance people received from employers to pay for the tax credit.

"I call that the ultimate bridge to nowhere," Biden said.

But Palin kept her cool, stayed on her game and lived up to her reputation as a spirited debater. She played to her strengths - her ability to connect with people like a neighbor and her resilience. Despite the contempt and criticism she's endured in recent days, she walked onto the stage like a candidate on top of the world. She shook hands with Biden and said "Hey, can I call you Joe?" That opening line was friendly, down-to-earth and said "we're equals."

Here's a breakdown:

* Did she answer the questions that were asked?

At the outset, Palin said she might not answer the questions as moderator Gwen Ifill or Biden wanted them answered, but that she'd be speaking directly to the American people. She did answer most questions; some she skipped over, like one about bankruptcy and mortgages, which she used as a trigger to talk about America's need for energy independence.

* Was she scripted or was she the Sarah we know?

Both. She clearly had crammed, but instead looking lost for answers, she seemed to have a greater command of her topics. She didn't hesitate, for example, on who to blame for the subprime mortgage meltdown.

"Darn right, it was the predatory lenders. They tried to talk the buyers into thinking it was OK to buy a $300,000 house when they could only afford a $100,000 house." She also said Americans must learn to live within their means, and that while recovery may be painful, we can "learn a heckuva lot of good lessons from this."

That sounded like Sarah. Later, when she spoke about Iran and Pakistan and the dangers of negotiating with dictators, she sounded more like a McCain spokeswoman.

* What did she say about the economy?

She stayed out of the policy realm and tried to bring it home. Talk to a parent at a kids' soccer game, she said, and "I'll bet you're gonna hear some fear in that parent's voice." She offered no specific solutions, no amendments to the bailout, but did call for strict federal oversight.

* How did she stand up on foreign policy questions?

Palin showed herself more knowledgeable than she has in earlier outings, when her trip to Kuwait, her son's Iraq service and a passing familiarity with Canada were the basis for her understanding of foreign policy.

She couldn't match Biden's command built over decades of high-level foreign policy experience and travel, but didn't back down either.

After Biden spoke forcefully for a specific timeline for withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, she paused a moment before looking at Biden and saying:

"Your plan is a white flag of surrender in Iraq."

She also sparred reasonably well with Biden over what US generals were saying about strategy in Afghanistan.

Both candidates made factual errors, but neither made any obvious, serious mistakes or embarrassing blunders.

Biden stole a march from Palin and claimed a place at the kitchen table when he argued about fairness to the middle class and made his own connection with average Americans based on his personal story.

That, coupled with his demonstrated depth of knowledge, gave him the edge.

But Palin regained ground.

As the late Joe Redington, another Valley resident, would have said:

"She done good."

BOTTOM LINE: The race isn't over.

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