October 2, 2008
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.”
October 2, 2008
Before most presidential campaign debates, the rivals compile “to-do lists” of things they hope to accomplish. But when it comes to tonight’s vice-presidential debate, Sarah Palin and Joe Biden are more concerned about what they don’t want to do.
Palin, the Republican nominee, doesn’t want to commit a major gaffe.
Biden, the Democratic candidate, doesn’t want to talk too much.
Palin doesn’t want to look too inexperienced.
Biden doesn’t want to look like a sexist bully.
Palin doesn’t want to seem pre-programmed and robotic.
Biden doesn’t want to seem arrogant and condescending. Or to make a major misstatement.
Tonight’s encounter at Washington University in St. Louis has attracted a bright international spotlight because of the historical nature of Palin’s candidacy and the controversies swirling around her. But both candidates have plenty of flaws that will only be exaggerated in high-definition national television.
The challenge for both of them is not to overplay the perceptions of their weaknesses,” said Jeff Eller, an Austin-based consultant and former Clinton administration official.
Nonpartisan debate experts have a simple message to both candidates: Do no harm, make no headlines, commit no gaffes.
“Don’t stick your foot in your mouth,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political scientist.
That could be a problem for two candidates who have been plagued by mistakes in recent weeks.
Biden, a six-term senator from Delaware, said that Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the nation on television after the 1929 stock market crash. (FDR wasn’t president yet and commercial TV didn’t exist at the time.) He told a TV interviewer that paying higher taxes was “patriotic.” And he called an Obama campaign ad ridiculing Republican presidential nominee John McCain’s computer skills “terrible.”
Make a case for McCain
Alaska Gov. Palin, for her part, has appeared unsure of herself in a series of TV interviews. Describing the proximity of her state to Russia, she told CBS’s Katie Couric, “it’s very important when you consider even national security issues with Russia as Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America, where, where do they go? It’s Alaska.”
Palin’s greatest challenge is to avoid the widespread public perception that she’s a policy lightweight. An Associated Press poll released Wednesday found that just 25 percent of likely voters say she has the right experience to be president — down from 41 percent a month ago.
“Ultimately, what Sarah Palin needs to avoid is talking about her experience, her positions (on issues) and her worldview,” said Republican consultant Kevin Madden. “Instead, she should make the case for John McCain’s worldview, positions and experience.”
Go for the zingers
Analysts across the ideological spectrum counsel Palin to return to the folksy banter and clever zingers that wowed conservatives and independents in the weeks after her surprise selection.
“What Sarah Palin needs to do is to be herself and not pretend to be someone else,” said independent pollster John Zogby. “She needs to be authentic and not pretend that Alaska is guarding the U.S. from Russian attack.”
The loquacious Biden needs to hold his tongue — something he has had trouble doing during his 36 years in office.
“He needs to avoid Senate-speak, long soliloquies with highly complex arguments that sound like a lecture,” said GOP consultant Madden.
Biden’s penchant for rambling rhetoric often leads to his most damaging gaffes.
“Mr. Biden can be an effective debater when he remains succinct and does not go off on tangents and shoot from the lip, so to speak,” said University of Texas government professor Bruce Buchanan.
Don’t be condescending
But the greatest danger facing the Democratic nominee is to act condescending or dismissive.
“It’s going to be absolutely fatal if he’s even perceived as being too tough on her,” said Texas A&M University political scientist Judith Baer. “However tempting it is, he cannot risk making the kind of crack (Texas Sen.) Lloyd Bentsen did when he said (to Dan Quayle in 1988), ‘You’re no Jack Kennedy.’ ”
Baer said Biden “must convey the impression that he takes Palin seriously. If he’s too critical, he risks creating sympathy for her.”
Ross Ramsey, editor of Texas Weekly, a nonpartisan political newsletter, said Biden must be polite but — most of all — concise.
“The less people remember Biden was there, the better he does,” Ramsey said. “You want to give her the whole spotlight and hope she trips.”
Ramsey likens the two debaters to accident-prone drivers.
“He needs to drive with his seat belt on,” Ramsey said. “She has a ‘student driver’ sticker on the side of the car. She needs to drive the thing like a pro and keep it between the lines.”
October 2, 2008
ST. LOUIS, Missouri (AFP) — US voters braced for the most anticipated vice-presidential debate in history on Thursday amid speculation that Republican Sarah Palin could stumble before millions of viewers.
Concern about Palin’s readiness has mounted in recent days following a series of cringe-inducing interviews in which Palin, a first-time Alaska governor, has been sometimes lost for words when faced with tough questioning.
Accusations have flown that Palin was overhandled and underexposed on the campaign trail and expectations are low as she prepares to square off against her Democrat rival Joe Biden in their sole clash ahead of the November 4 election.
The governor burst onto the national scene when John McCain picked her as his running mate, energizing the conservative Republican base with her positions on abortion, gun rights and her background as a moose-hunting, deeply Christian mother of five from the northern frontier.
But the bloom is fading and some Republicans are fearing a fiasco.
On Wednesday Palin spent the final full day of intensive training at McCain’s Arizona ranch.
In recent days she has faced widespread ridicule for the few interviews she has granted, including for citing Alaska’s proximity to Canada and Russia as giving her foreign policy experience.
At least two renowned conservative columnists — keen to back Palin when she was announced as McCain’s running mate — are in open revolt and calling her unqualified for the job.
Writing in the conservative National Review, columnist Kathleen Parker said Palin should step down, while Dallas Morning News editorial columnist Rod Dreher wrote that he is no longer backing McCain-Palin.
Some political analysts and experts said Palin was facing her most crucial test just 34 days before Americans head to voting booths.
“It’s make-or-break for her in the sense that, in a three-game series, her record so far is one and one: the convention and the interviews,” Washington University history professor Peter Kastor told AFP.
Her speech brought the house down at the Republican convention at the beginning of September.
“This (debate) could be what seals the deal. If she does extremely well or extremely poorly, obviously it will be the debate that people say defines Sarah Palin’s candidacy,” Kastor said.
Joel Goldstein, a presidency scholar at St. Louis University, said the Biden-Palin debate has a “unique level of fascination,” primarily because there has been “so little exposure so far of Governor Palin.”
Goldstein and other experts described it as the most anticipated vice-presidential debate since they debuted back in 1976.
In the build-up to Thursday’s showdown, Palin acquaintances from Alaska framed the candidate as an effective debater.
Anchorage Daily News editor Larry Persily described how Palin “flummoxed her rivals like Muhammad Ali around the ring.”
Tony Knowles, former governor of Alaska, said Palin “is an attractive candidate with a unique ability to emotionally connect with the audience.”
This week McCain has sought to help Palin navigate a media minefield.
In response to the attacks, McCain struggled Wednesday to convincingly answer a National Public Radio reporter’s question on whether he would ask for foreign policy advice from his running mate.
“I’ve turned to her for advice many times in the past,” McCain told a journalist from NPR, without specifying on what subjects.
Ahead of the debate, Palin, 44, told a rally in Ohio that she had never met Biden. “But I’ve been hearing about his Senate speeches since I was in, like, second grade,” she quipped.
When asked by CBS interviewer Katie Couric if that was a risky thing to say considering Palin’s own running mate is 72, the governor replied: “Oh no, it’s nothing negative at all.”
“He’s got a tremendous amount of experience and, you know, I’m the new energy, the new face.”
Biden, a 35-year veteran of the Senate, is known for being gaffe-prone, and he runs the risk of sounding condescending or patronizing when he faces off against Palin.
Last month he told a campaign rally that he will not let things get personal at the debate.
“The way I was raised is: I never, ever, ever attack the other person,” Biden said. “I will take issue with her as strongly as I can.”
September 9, 2008
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Biden said that he’s glad McCain “finally realized the idea that this election is about change,” but said that while the message is new, his plans for the country don’t back it up.
“John must have been the last guy in American politics to know this [election] is about change,” he said. “The only problem is that all John’s changing is the rhetoric. And all he’d change as president of the United States in my view is the name at the top of Bush’s policies. That’s the only change that you’re going to see, and all that would do is keep America shortchanged.”
The Delaware senator argued Republicans don’t understand the anxiety most Americans feel about the economy, and certainly have not explained how they’d ease it.
“I’ve never seen so many Americans get knocked down with so little help, so little recognition from their government, from this administration,” he said. “And apparently there’s not going to be a whole lot more recognition of their plight and concern on the part, based on what’s said so far, from the Republican ticket. Ladies and gentlemen, he and Sarah Palin have said nothing about how they’re going to bring about change.”
Biden’s primary attack line on the GOP ticket has been that they offer only glib attack lines and distortions of Obama’s plans, especially on taxes. Biden told several hundred here in Central Missouri that while the Democrats would give tax cuts to 95 percent of those who take home a paycheck, McCain would leave over 100 million families out of his tax plan, while giving $4 billion in incentives to oil companies.
Politifact debunked Biden’s claim that 100 million families would be left out — that it would be more accurate to say about 100 million people or about 65 million families.
“This isn’t change this is more of the same,” Biden said. “I can hardly wait until we get into the details of our respective tax policies.”
This event was the rare one at which Biden took questions that one of them was not about his counterpart on the Republican ticket, Gov. Sarah Palin. But he did refer to her when one woman asked about how he and Obama would help those with disabilities. In her convention speech, Palin said she’d be a voice for parents with children with special needs, noting her newborn son, Trig, who has Down’s Syndrome.
“I hear all this talk about how the Republicans are going to work in dealing with parents who have … the joy and the difficulty of raising a child who has a developmental disability,” said Biden, who’s wife is a teacher. “Well guess what folks? If you care about it, why don’t you support stem cell research?”
Biden’s itinerary today takes him from the heart of Missouri to the Democratic stronghold of St. Louis. He told the audience that he felt good about the campaign, and said the Obama organization here would go a long way to turning the state blue.