By Daniel Politi, Slate Magazine
The vice-presidential candidates faced off last night in an eagerly anticipated debate that ultimately failed to deliver any of the game-changing moments that partisans on both sides were hoping for. The debate “included humor, emotion and sharp elbows,” notes USA Today, as the candidates kept things relatively peaceful while they eagerly sparred on taxes, Iraq, and who can best bring change to Washington. Coming a day after the Senate voted in favor of the $700 billion bailout plan, it was hardly surprising the economy quickly took center stage, and Joe Biden and Sarah Palin each tried to portray their ticketmate as the candidate most capable of understanding the struggles of the middle class.
Ultimately, each “escaped without a major mishap,” says the Washington Post, “and Palin seemed to repair an image that had been damaged by recent media interviews and increasing public doubts about her readiness for the nation’s No. 2 job.” While many predicted Palin would be embarrassed on a national stage when facing off against the veteran senator, the governor of Alaska largely held her own. Still, “Palin’s novelty was on full display,” says the Los Angeles Times. “She winked repeatedly, and often uttered remarks in a sing-song lilt more often heard in a children’s classroom than on the national stage.” The New York Times agrees and says that Palin proved she “was unlike any other running mate in recent memory, using phrases like ‘heck of a lot’ and ‘Main Streeters like me’ to appeal to working-class and middle-class voters.” But even as she displayed more confidence on the important issues, “her citing of facts sometimes came across as rote, she twice misstated the name of the top American general in Afghanistan, and she was chided at times for not sticking to the subject at hand,” says the Wall Street Journal.
While the “experience gap was evident throughout,” as the LAT puts it, the NYT probably describes it best by saying that Palin “succeeded by not failing in any obvious way.” She often relied on talking points and repeatedly referred to John McCain as a “maverick.” A while into the debate it seemed Biden had had enough of the word and replied that McCain “has been no maverick on the things that matter to people’s lives.” And that was Biden’s strategy throughout the encounter as he mostly ignored Palin and made McCain the focus of his toughest attacks.
At one point, when Biden attacked McCain for favoring deregulation and Palin answered by talking about taxes, the senator from Delaware did directly criticize Palin’s failure to answer the questions she was being asked. The governor quickly turned it into a criticism of the media and Washington politicians. “I may not answer the questions the way that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I’m going to talk straight to the American people and let ‘em know my track record also.”
Biden repeatedly tried to link McCain with the Bush administration. In what the WP says may have been “the essence of the night,” Palin replied in kind by saying that Americans would eventually grow tired of the Democratic ticket “constantly looking backwards, and pointing fingers, and doing the blame game.” Biden was ready with a response: “Look, past is prologue.” The LAT notes that in her eagerness “to portray Biden as typical of the Washington establishment so despised by voters, Palin at one point made an argument that echoed Obama’s thrust against McCain” when she said that “Americans are craving something new and different.”
Palin “delivered a livelier and more rhetorically compelling performance than Biden,” says the LAT in an analysis that points out the governor winked at the audience, gave a “shout-out” to her brother’s third-grade class, and talked of her connection to voters as a hockey and soccer mom. For his part, Biden seemed more comfortable when dealing with policy. Still, the debate’s most emotional moment belonged to Biden when he briefly choked up when talking about the car accident that killed his wife and daughter. The NYT‘s Alessandra Stanley says that “while her showmanship may have exhilarated her fans, it also helped Mr. Biden, who is normally known as something of a know-it-all showoff; in contrast to her, he seemed reserved and sincere.”
In the end, the encounter may have left voters wishing there were more vice-presidential debates. “Palin and Biden were each appealing in their own way—and in ways that neither McCain nor Obama were in their first debate last Friday,” says the Post in a front-page analysis. In its own analysis, USAT also compares the debate with last week’s encounter and says the two running mates “delivered a fierce, fast-talking back-and-forth with tougher criticism than the presidential contenders traded in their first debate.”
The NYT says that while Palin may have helped McCain by putting the focus back on the presidential candidates, it didn’t “constitute the turning point the McCain campaign was looking for” at a time when Obama seems to be gaining ground with voters. “This is going to help stop the bleeding,” a Republican consultant said. “But this alone won’t change the trend line.” There were new signs yesterday that McCain needs all the help he can get as his campaign announced that it was pulling its staff and advertising out of Michigan, a Democratic state where Republicans once thought McCain had a chance.
In a story that looks at the state of the presidential race, the WSJ points out that polls show Obama leading in almost enough states to win the election. The Democratic nominee is ahead or tied in a few states that voted Republican in 2004, including Ohio and Florida, and has a lead in Pennsylvania, which is the other Democratic state McCain’s campaign has been targeting. Of course, a lot can change in a month, but right now McCain’s campaign is “being forced to play defense in territory Republicans have long taken for granted.”