Palin rebounds in debate – but is it too late?

Her better-than-expected performance Thursday probably won’t do much for a weakened McCain campaign.

Jim Young/Reuters
No knockout blows: Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin held their own in Thursday's vice-presidential debate in St. Louis.

Could there be two Sarah Palins?

The Sarah Palin who showed up to debate Joseph Biden here in St. Louis Thursday night was articulate, charming, and well-prepared. The Sarah Palin who was interviewed just a few days ago by CBS anchor Katie Couric appeared ill-informed and out of her depth, caught off-guard by seemingly basic questions – such as what newspapers she reads.

Ms. Palin, the governor of Alaska and the Republican vice-presidential nominee, clearly went into Thursday's debate against the Democratic Senator Biden with a game plan, and she carried it off. Over and over, she pitched her message to the middle class in a folksy way, throwing in a few winks for good measure.

The way to judge the economy “is go to a kid's soccer game on Saturday and turn to any parent there on the sideline and ask them, 'How are you feeling about the economy?' " Palin said in her opening remarks, her trademark “Fargo” accent in full timbre. “And I'll betcha, you're going to hear some fear in that parent's voice, fear regarding the few investments that some of us have in the stock market.”

But there’s bad news for Palin: Her better-than-expected performance probably won’t do much for a McCain campaign that is on the ropes. Just before the debate, news broke that Republican nominee John McCain was ending his effort to win Michigan – a key Midwestern battleground the campaign had long held in its sights.

At the very least, though, Palin’s confident performance should quiet critics who had found her interviews with Ms. Couric embarrassing. “I think she reassured some conservatives,” says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin.

Palin didn’t really answer some of the questions posed to her, instead veering back at times to the comfortable terrain of energy policy, but she did it so smoothly it hardly seemed noticeable. And as
debate-watchers point out time and again, style matters at least as much as substance. More than once she echoed President Reagan, a sure path into the hearts of the party faithful.

In invoking American exceptionalism, she used the Reaganism, “that shining city on a hill.” And after one withering attack by Biden, who sought repeatedly to link McCain to what he calls eight years of failed policies under President Bush, she said: “Say it ain't so, Joe. There you go again pointing backwards again.” Reagan had memorialized the line “there you go again” in his 1980 debate with President Carter.

Biden came into the debate with his own foibles to overcome – a propensity to talk too much and commit gaffes – and he too succeeded. In fact, neither candidate made any serious gaffes or got off any zingers that will go down in history. Rather, like the presidential debate last Friday between Democratic nominee Barack Obama and McCain, if either side won, it was on points, not a knockout.

“I saw this as the mirror image of the previous debate,” says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. “Last week, I thought McCain won on substance, Obama on style. This time, I give it to Biden on substance, and Palin on style.”

Biden went easy on Palin, but pounded hard at McCain and the Bush administration on the economy, Iraq, Afghanistan, healthcare, and nearly every issue that came up. Palin repeatedly called McCain a “maverick,” and by the end, Biden seemed fed up.

“He's been a maverick on some issues, but he has been no maverick on the things that matter to people's lives,” Biden said, going into a riff on the areas in which McCain “has not been a maverick,” healthcare, education, the budget, and the war. “He's not been a maverick on virtually anything that genuinely affects the things that people really talk about around their kitchen table.”

The proverbial kitchen table came up five times – not surprising, given the economic times – and Biden would not let himself be outdone by Palin, who seems less removed from her middle-class origins than does Biden.

Palin probably scored more points with her spirited cheerleading for the Republican ticket – and her self-image as a "Joe Six-Pack" hockey mom – than Biden did with his more senatorial demeanor. But by the end, Biden also brought the discussion close to home. He recalled how his father fell on hard times and had to move to find work. And he spoke with emotion about the death of his first wife and infant daughter, choking up as he recalled his injured son, not sure if he was going to survive.

Palin and Biden also went back and forth on taxes the whole evening. When moderator Gwen Ifill asked Palin to explain McCain’s healthcare plan, she talked taxes some more. Biden vehemently denied her claim of how Obama would raise taxes on families making as little as $42,000 – saying that by the same standard, McCain voted to raise taxes 477 times. But by keeping Biden on the defensive, Palin probably won on that turf.

In “spin alley,” where aides and surrogates from both campaigns held court with reporters after the debate, the back and forth continued. David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist, conceded Palin’s likability but gave no ground on her positions.

“This was a folksy rendition of the same Bush policies,” he said, critiquing her performance.

Steve Schmidt, a senior McCain adviser, disagreed that Palin had ducked some foreign policy questions, listing the various countries and regions she had discussed. But when the talk turned to the campaign’s decision to pull out of Michigan, he rattled off states where both campaigns are competing: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New Mexico, Nevada, and Colorado.

“It’s coming down in the final month to a small number of states like it always does,” Mr. Schmidt said.

What he didn’t say is that five out of six of those states were won by President Bush four years ago.

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