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

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    Anticipated: Workers prepare the hall at Washington University in St. Louis for Thursday’s debate between vice presidential nominees Sarah Palin and Joe Biden.
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Normally, vice presidential debates don’t matter much. Not so this year, when the two candidates take the stage in St. Louis Thursday night.

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.

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“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.”

Other strategists have suggested that, given Palin’s recent struggles, Biden should use his debate platform mainly to go after McCain and leave it to the media to comment on any missteps by Palin. As much as the Palin phenomenon has attracted enormous public attention – and could spur unusually high TV viewership for the 9 p.m. (EST) debate at Washington University – the vast majority of voters ultimately cast their ballot based on the top of the ticket, not the running mate.

For Palin, a low bar:

Scoring the Thursday debate may not be as obvious as it seems. Given Palin’s recent track record, she could even emerge with a victory of sorts just by appearing marginally credible.

“For Palin, we’ve been hammered for some time by the opposition about how insubstantial she is, how she’s an ‘empty-suit,’ ” says Mitchell McKinney, professor of communication at the University of Missouri, Columbia. “It’s really created the expectation that if she just gets up on the stage and strings words together and doesn’t fall out of her chair, some may go away from that thinking, ‘Wow, she’s not as bad as they say.’”

But, he adds, “if she does something or says something that feeds into that notion of an empty suit – even if it’s a slight misstatement – it would likely become the major gaffe or blunder that could really do damage.”

Still, the bar has been set so low for Palin, merely clearing that bar may not be enough.

“She has to be baseline credible in discussing a fairly wide range of domestic and foreign policy issues,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“She does not have to match Biden. She doesn’t need to know foreign capitals and how to say Saakashvili. But she does need to know how to talk about America’s place in the world, the kinds of challenges we face, and how we might best respond to them.”

Working the refs?

Obama campaign officials warn against underestimating Palin. She did, after all, defeat a sitting governor in the primaries and then defeat a former Democratic governor in the general election when she won the Alaska governorship two years ago.

When she burst onto the national scene a month ago as McCain’s surprise pick, many Americans were taken by her charm, her big family, and Alaska frontier woman-cum-beauty pageant contestant persona. Team McCain believed it had found the key to winning over the white working class voters who have eluded Obama.

Now, the question is whether Palin has a second act.

As a precaution, Palin supporters have been “working the ref” in the run up to Thursday night.

PBS anchor Gwen Ifill, the debate moderator, has written a book about Barack Obama and other young, successful black politicians. This book, due to be released around Inauguration Day in January, shows Ms. Ifill is “in the tank” for Obama, writes conservative commentator Michelle Malkin.

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