One hell of a debate

I thought that Joe Biden and Sarah Palin were both excellent tonight. Biden hammered McCain relentlessly, which is the traditional role of the vice presidential candidate. Palin, forced by circumstances to prove her merit to an increasingly skeptical electorate, accomplished that mission and then some. Having done so, she is once again in a position to help the ticket by energizing the conservative base and appealing to at least a segment of the undecided vote.

From a technical standpoint, it was Biden who had the more detailed command of the facts (and the greater ability to fudge them). He was able not just to hammer McCain, but to do so at a level of specificity that Palin could not address. And, on occasion, Palin missed easy opportunities to defend her running mate. I got the sense that, while Palin was getting up to speed on the basic issues, Biden was being prepped for an all-out assault on McCain. Palin got in her share of his shots at Obama, and some of them were quite effective. But, as I suggested, she could not afford to be as single-minded as Biden because she had a greater need to sell herself. Nor, it seems, is it in her nature to be purely a hatchet-woman.

I hesitate to speculate about how this will play with the electorate. One possibility is that while the debate will raise Palin’s “favorables” (that seems almost certain), it will also drive down McCain’s. If so, that’s a win for Biden. But it’s at least as possible that Palin’s often sparkling performance, coupled with Biden’s harsh partisanship, will translate into a clean win for her and by extension McCain. Traditionally, a candidate who both exceeds expectations and displays the more pleasing personality is adjudged the winner. By these criteria, Palin clearly won. But the themes Biden hammered — the “horrors” of the past eight years and McCain’s association with aspects of Bush’s polcies — are winning themes.

Most likely, as one way or another seems almost always to be the case, this vice presidential debate will not affect the outcome of the race. With Obama ahead, the Democrats will accept that outcome. But with McCain one poor performance by Palin (or by McCain in the next weeks) from possible extinction, many Republicans may accept it too.

In any event, Sarah Palin deserves tremendous credit. Three of the four candidates in this race have been debating off and on for a year and a half. All of them performed quite well in their latest round. Palin was entirely out of the loop until about a month ago. Yet her performance was mostly equal, and in some ways superior to, that of McCain, Obama, and Biden.

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