All eyes on Palin as vice presidential debate arrives

October 2, 2008

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In the run-up to what is the most anticipated vice presidential debate in history, both Democrats and Republicans have reason to be nervous about the high stakes, performance and potential pitfalls their candidates face.

Delaware Sen. Joe Biden is a veteran of 14 debates during the 2008 presidential primary contest. So all eyes will be on the newcomer political phenom, GOP Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who has far less debate experience and whose supporters had been already trying to lower pre-emptively expectations about her performance.

Already, Team McCain has complained that Palin has been jammed this week by “gotcha” questions from “media elite” like CBS’ Katie Couric, become the punch line on comedy shows like “Saturday Night Live,” – and could be sandbagged by the debate moderator, PBS’ Gwen Ifill, who has a book coming out on Obama next year.

But after a series of recent TV interviews in which Palin has stumbled – from being unable to name the publications she regularly reads to failing to identify any Supreme Court decision she had opposed – she Alaska may no longer win just by getting through the 90-minute match-up, political insiders say.

With her negative poll ratings on the rise, she must adhere to the first rule of a vice presidential candidate – do no harm to her ticket. But she must also repair a tarnished image that has some leading conservative commentators, such as the Washington Post’s George Will and the National Review’s Kathleen Parker have questioned her credentials to be on the ticket.

“The expectations have never been lower … but the idea that she wins simply by not falling over the podium is misleading,” says Rosemary Joyce, professor and chairwoman of the Department of Anthropology at UC Berkeley. “There is a line – and Sarah Palin crossed it. Because of the national interviews in which she so clearly uninformed … she has a higher bar than just showing up. She has to make sense,” said Joyce, an authority on sex and gender issues.

With just over a month to the election and the nation’s economic troubles dominating the headlines, Palin’s political troubles come at a challenging time for the GOP ticket. The most recent CNN/Time and Quinnipiac polls, released Wednesday from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Nevada, Virginia and the bellwether state of Missouri – long viewed as in McCain’s win column – show Obama now up in all those battlegrounds. They also show McCain suffering from a growing gender gap problem with women voters.

But Palin can hardly be counted out.

“Palin is a fresh face, an attractive executive and certainly she is the only one of the four (presidential and vice presidential candidates) who has been able to connect with the rank and file voters,” said author and speech communications expert Ruth Sherman. “She hasn’t done that well in those interviews … but anybody who underestimates her is making a mistake,” she said. “She’s a masterful communicator. She knows how to connect. And that is huge from people who are getting their information from TV.”

Patrick Dorinson, a Sacramento-based GOP strategist and commentator, said the headlines of a stalled national economic bailout package and the current populist anger at Wall Street might work in Palin’s favor.

“Given the revolt against the governing class in Washington, she is going to say, ‘I’m one of you,’ ” he said. “The foreign policy stuff will be difficult – and she won’t do well on it,” Dorinson predicted. “But right now, people are focused on their family stuff. She can’t make a big gaffe, but if she can get back to who she is.”

Already, there are some broad hints about how Palin may approach the debate – her recent media appearances have unveiled potential lines of attack.

In her recent interviews with Couric, Palin argued that she provided a “fresh face” and contrast to Biden, whom she tagged a tired Washington insider. “I’ve never met (Biden) before. But, I’ve been hearing about his Senate speeches since I was in the second grade,” said Palin this week.

“People may think it’s funny,” said Sherman. But, “it does call attention to her youth and vigor. … She’ll make mention of that over and over.”

Palin also has previewed a sales pitch that she may reprise tonight.

“It’s time that normal ‘Joe Six Pack’ American is finally presented in the position of the vice presidency,” she told conservative radio commentator Hugh Hewitt, adding that her populist approach has gotten Washington elites “ticked off about it.”

The argument that Americans want a Joe Six Pack a heartbeat from the presidency is a tough sell among voters, says Joyce.

“The idea of being uninformed, being unable to name a newspaper you read … that goes beyond populist,” said Joyce. “It’s one thing to say Harvard shouldn’t dictate what the country believes, but (the McCain-Palin team) is perilously close to arguing that ignorance is good.”

For his part, Biden has a tougher challenge in a rare debate that pits male and female candidate.

“He has a very fine line to tread,” said Sherman. “He has to show respect, but can’t be too solicitous too paternalistic. He has a habit of holding forth. … He’s been in the Senate for a long time and they pontificate from 30,000 feet.”

Dorinson said Biden’s chief challenge might be putting a lid on his own verbosity.

“Biden is an embellisher who likes to think he’s the smartest guy in the room,” he said. “If I was (Palin), I’d smack back and say that the scrapper from Scranton has no idea how people live in this country.”

But the spotlight may not be on just Palin and Biden tonight.

PBS’ moderator Ifill has taken shots from conservatives for being the author of “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama,” which is to be published on Jan. 20, Inauguration Day.

Dorinson said that has given conservatives ammunition to say that however the debate turns out, the media were “all in the tank” for Obama and “they’ll question her fairness.”

But Joyce said Palin will still have to stand on her own.

“I don’t see that works with anybody except the real, ardent, right-wing GOP core,” she said. “There is already a demonization of the media … but it only works with those people who already think there is a huge liberal conspiracy.”

McCain v. Obama – Let Us Know Who You Want To Win

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