For those expecting to see Senator Joe Biden field dress McCain's VP pick on the Washington University stage based on her less than lackluster performances before the national media, there was no train wreck in St. Louis, though that could be because her only appearances before the mainstream media in the past weeks had set the bar for her debate performance so low that she could have jumped it with a snowmobile.
Against all odds, Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska put on a performance at the debate that made her interviews with Charlie Gibsonand Katie Couric and the Tina Fey videosnow making the rounds on YouTube pale by comparison.
The governor had a rough couple of weeks before the debate, becoming a late night punch line and having to see even stalwart conservatives like Kathleen Parker and George Will questioning her place on the presidential ticket. Her case for being ready at day one to serve if something were to happen to John McCain was also not helped by the release last week of a new YouTube classic video of her "Bristol Baywatch" one-piece swimsuit competition from the early 80s Miss Alaska beauty pageant in which she won Miss Congeniality. Adding insult to injury for Palin was the release of her Jethro Tull-meets-Northern Exposure flute-playing performance from the talent portion of the same pageant.
From the beginning it was almost a lock that Biden should win, but in a sense couldn't. He obviously knew the issues better, but as anyone who has followed presidential elections would know, knowledge of the issues is almost worthless, eclipsed entirely by a candidates ability to speak to "Main Street", a nebulous locale which was mentioned repeatedly Thursday, first by Biden within his two minute opening remarks.
Palin faced what seemed to be the crashing back end of a soaring rise to fame since she was tapped for the VP spot, a star turn that gave the McCain a serious bump only to have her become a liability the more people actually got to see her and hear her speak.
Palin had spent much of the week before the debate in red-rock isolation at McCain's Arizona ranch being coached by the campaign, presumably learning the differences between Sunnis and Shi'ites, Slovakia and Slovenia, and Hamas and hummus. She stated in the days before the campaign that the media had been "censoring" her, and she expressed her desire to speak to the American people, a humorous contention if you consider the way she was lampooned for her few performances before the national media and the fact that the McCain campaign has not let her come within a country mile of a press conference since she was named as his VP pick.
In retrospect, the Palin strategy was easy, she didn't have to prove she knew as much as Biden and any attempt to do so would have been a failure. Staring straight at the camera like a moose in the headlights wearing a jet-black post-Goth top and skirt, she stuck to general statements such as saying on the issue of the economy that if you want to know if it's a good time or a bad time in America, go to a kid's soccer game on a Saturday and listen to the fear in peoples' voices. Basically, she kept things simple and tried to show that she understands the concerns of soccer moms, even if they have been usurped in this election by the sudden rise of hockey moms.
Palin was probably further helped by dolling out a healthy portion of "aw shucks" down home corn pone, using phrases such as "darn right" and "dog gonnit" with aplomb.
Biden seemed to hold back, repeatedly cracking a broad, impossibly white-toothed smile in response to Palin's statements and shying away from the intense, loquacious, and often hot-headed speaking style he has become known for. He also made a point of clearly repeating specific contentions on policy, including McCain's voting against funding for troops that included a timeline from withdrawal from Iraq. He also surely scored some sympathetic points with viewers for his comments on the loss of his wife and year-old daughter in a tragic car accident shortly before he first entered public office.
Biden gave a nuanced response to how the United States should handle a nuclear Iran, saying that while we should not let them get nuclear weapons, such weapons are years off, and stressing that Ahmadinejad is not the supreme leader of Iran. To his credit, he didn't try to distance himself from claims that Obama would sit down for talks with Iran with no preconditions saying that our friends and allies "have been saying, talk, talk, talk."
Palin for her part again tied instability in the Middle East to the war in Iraq, and said there is no way Iran can have no nukes period, sighting Ahmadinejad's statements calling Israel a "stinking corpse". She almost managed a very adept pronunciation of "naivete." She also said she believes that a two-state solution is the key to a political solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and after Biden gave a spirited response about his support for the state of Israel, she expressed her joy that "we both love Israel," to which the Jewish state rejoiced.
In what was easily the most talked-about Vice Presidential debate of all time, one for which over 3,100 press credentials were issued, the maligned Alaska governor showed her ability to use "aw shucks" plain talk and an accent straight out of Fargo to make up for a glaring lack of foreign policy and legislative experience, showing again that in American elections, style and low expectations can make up for any shortage of substance.
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