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Unusually high stakes in vice presidential debate

On Thursday, Sarah Palin has a chance to restore her image, while Joe Biden must avoid being long-winded or aggressive.

By Staff Writer / October 1, 2008

Anticipated: Workers prepare the hall at Washington University in St. Louis for Thursday’s debate between vice presidential nominees Sarah Palin and Joe Biden.

Rick Wilking/Reuters

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Washington

Normally, vice presidential debates don’t matter much. Not so this year, when the two candidates take the stage in St. Louis Thursday night.

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Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whose winning persona boosted the lackluster campaign of John McCain at last month’s GOP convention, is on the ropes after a series of subpar interviews left her looking ill-informed – and some conservatives in open revolt against her. After some stumbles by Senator McCain when Wall Street fell into crisis, the Republican ticket has been losing ground and now trails in most polls.

The future of McCain’s campaign does not rest on her shoulders – it’s still up to McCain himself to get his team back on track – but if Governor Palin commits any gaffes or looks out of her depth Thursday, McCain’s task becomes that much harder.

“This [debate] can bury any bad memories or create a whole bunch of them,” says Republican pollster David Winston. “It will be very much a high-wire moment for her.”

Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, Barack Obama’s running mate, faces challenges of his own. He is famously long-winded and gaffe-prone. So far, he has not uttered anything unduly damaging, but with the whole world watching, Thursday will be a big test.

Biden’s challenge:

The biggest challenge of all for the 35-year Senate veteran – going up against a first-term woman governor who has struggled when she’s unscripted – may be to avoid looking condescending or patronizing.

Biden has reportedly consulted with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, against whom he debated 12 times during the Democratic primaries, and with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California about how to debate a woman.

Their replies were not reported, but one need look no further for clues than to former New York Rep. Rick Lazio’s debate against Senator Clinton during their race for the Senate in 2000. Mr. Lazio walked up to Clinton and demanded she sign a pledge to ban large donations from the race. Lazio’s aggressive posture may have contributed to his defeat.

“Biden has to be strong and take on Palin, but not in a condescending way or a put-down way,” says Democratic strategist Peter Fenn. “McCain was quite condescending [in last Friday’s debate], and it hurt him tremendously.”

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