The Debate Voters Have Been Waiting For

By most accounts, Republican Gov. Sarah Palin faced the biggest test tonight in her one and only debate with Democratic opponent Sen. Joe Biden. Her primary task was to demonstrate that she knows enough about national and foreign policy issues to erase, or at least diminish, the images seared in voters’ minds of her poor showing during interviews with CBS’s Katie Couric released over the past few days and Tina Fey’s eerily accurate caricature of her on “Saturday Night Live.”

So, how did she do?

“This was one of the most fascinating and exciting debates of 2008. There was a serious exchange between the candidates. And despite Biden’s extensive experience as a senator on the judiciary and foreign-policy committees, Palin was able to have a conversation with him and make points that were as strong as his points,” says Carnegie Mellon political scientist Kiron Skinner. “She was clever and artful in weaving in her work as an executive at various levels in Alaska. It was clear that she had prepared and was able to go beyond talking points to answer deeper questions than in the past. It was a sea change from where she was a week ago.”

The first questions from moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS centered on the economy. Palin got off to a good start by immediately engaged with voters watching at home by stating that soccer moms and Joe Six Packs should band together and say never again will they be taken advantage of by financial institutions. When Biden pointed out she hadn’t answered the moderator’s question on deregulation, Palin warned that she may not answer the questions the way the moderator or her opponent may think she should because she planned to speak directly to voters.

Biden also addressed the nation’s struggling economic classes by recalling “Joey” at the gas station who can’t afford to fill up his tank while also making a case against McCain

On healthcare, which is a major concern for the more than 40 million Americans who are currently uninsured, Palin said that McCain “is proposing a $5 billion tax credit for families so they can get out there and purchase their own healthcare coverage using a $5,000 tax credit that is budget neutral. That doesn’t cost the government anything as opposed to Barack Obama’s plan to mandate healthcare coverage and have this universal government-run program, and unless you are pleased with the way that the federal government has been running anything lately, I don’t think that is going to be real pleasing for Americans to consider healthcare being taken over by the Feds.” But according to the Obama campaign, Obama’s healthcare plan is not government run and would maintain the existing system.

When the debate turned to foreign policy, each resorted to familiar talking points. Palin talked about the success of the surge in Iraq, while Biden discussed Obama’s prescience on entering the war, the economic surplus Iraq enjoys while the US economy struggles, and the importance of refocusing attention on Pakistan.

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According to NBC’s Domenico Montenaro, in his live blog of the debate, “Palin may not have realized it but she teed up George Bush for Biden when she said that pointing fingers and looking to the past is not helpful essentially. That allowed Biden to tie McCain to Bush, wondering how McCain would be any different on his policies than Bush.

Biden went off on a litany of policies, but appeared more confident on foreign policy.” Palin, however, scored one for her team when she said, “It’s so obvious that I’m a Washington outsider and not someone who’s used to the way you guys operate because you voted for the war and now you oppose the war. You’re one who says, as so many politicians do, that I was for it before I was against it or vice versa.”

Biden, Skinner adds, is known as a forceful speaker and thinker and delivered on all of those dimensions, but Palin exceeded expectations.

“If she can continue build on tonight’s performance, the McCain campaign will be further energized,” Skinner observes. “There was some concern among Republican conservatives who were beginning to feel a bit down about the campaign, and enthusiasm was waning, but this will reenergize the McCain campaign, the conservatives and the Republican Party.”

Palin had the most to lose tonight and came off as appealing, albeit a bit folksy, says San Francisco State political scientist Robert Smith.

“I think it was a tie, really. But she just had to show that she was Biden’s equal and not many mistakes. By not losing, she in effect won,” says Smith. “The main thing is she was able to stand side by side with Biden. Given the fact that he’s a 35-year veteran in the Senate and she had some doubts about her, she did reasonably well. I suspect the polls will give her the edge; I would.” Palin definitely didn’t do any damage to the Republican ticket tonight, and Smith suspects that she may have actually helped her running mate, who has been spiraling downward in recent polls.

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Former Democratic rival Sen. Hillary Clinton issued a statement after the event that read, “Tonight’s debate underscored the stark choice American families face in this election. I’ve known Sen. Biden a long time – as Americans saw tonight, he is a strong, passionate and experienced leader. Like Barack Obama, Joe Biden understands both the economic stresses here at home and the strategic challenges in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the world. We saw yet again that Sen. McCain and Sarah Palin will offer only more of the same failed policies of the Bush administration. America’s hardworking middle class families deserve better.”

But what matters most is what voters thought. In a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll, debate watchers asked whom they thought did the best job tonight said Biden won by 51% to 36%. And in a survey of uncommitted voters surveyed by CBS News/Knowledge Networks, 46% said they thought Biden was the winner, 21% thought Palin won, and 33% thought it was a draw.

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