Candidates spar on economy, War in Iraq

The matchup of Joseph Biden and Sarah Palin started out as the vice presidential debate to end all vice presidential debates, one that would really matter. “Easily the most anticipated,” declared Brian Williams.

Instead, Thursday’s St. Louis, Mo., debate was a reminder once again that it really is all about the top of the ticket.

There is no doubt that there was drama, not the least of which was the face-to0face encounter of a female political sensation with a male experienced political pro, a dynamic not seen since Vice President George Bush debated Rep. Geraldine Ferraro in 1984.

But this debate had much more tension that that one, as poll numbers continued to sink for John McCain and the latest of the not-so-flattering Palin interview segments aired on “CBS Evening News with Katie Couric.”

On the other side, there was the possibility of Biden making a long-winded fool of himself, as he has done before, like his assertion that President Roosevelt appeared on television in 1929. Even worse, he could come across as a patronizing know it all.

But none of that happened.

Instead, both candidates were largely kept in check, and, as much as they attempted to bring in their own personal stories into the proceedings, ultimately were forced to focus on McCain and Barack Obama. Moderator Gwen Ifill by and large avoided asking specific issues in the running mates’ pasts, and didn’t seem to be all that interested in many followups, either.

With Tina Fey’s devastating impersonation settling into the public’s mindset, Palin undoubtedly exceeded expectations. How could she not?

Moreover, she was downright defiant when it came to answering questions, often dodging Biden’s comments or Ifill’s queries.

Wasn’t it McCain who has been calling for deregulation? “I may not answer the question that you or the moderator want to hear,” she said.

Later, she said she was thankful for the chance to debate because, “I like to answer these tough questions without the filter of the mainstream media.”

She did make mistakes, calling Gen. David McKiernan, the top commander in Afghanistan, “General McClellan.” And some of her answers were rambling.

But she didn’t come off, as she did with Couric, as just plain stumped. Instead, displaying an every-smiling face, she offered coherent talking points and a few sharp retorts.

Her most effective portions came when she combined her folksy charm — there were so many “doggone its” and “god bless hers” and “betcha” that you would have thought Marge Gunderson prepped her — with harsh attacks and a fighting persona.

When it came to Wall Street fat cats, corporate greed and the general unfairness of the financial system, she looked at the camera and said, “One thing that Americans do at this time also, though, is let’s commit ourselves, just everyday American people — Joe Six-Pack, hockey moms across the nation — I think we need to band together and say, never again.”’

It was a performance that seemed to throw Biden off his game.

At the start, when she shook Biden’s hand and said, “Hey, can I call you Joe?,” it should have been a warning sign that this was a new kind of candidate. She offered sharp jabs at Obama and Biden on taxes and oil drilling.

“Barack Obama and Sen. Biden, you’ve said no to everything in trying to find a domestic solution to the energy crisis that we’re in,” she said. “You even called drilling — safe, environmentally-friendly drilling offshore as raping the outer continental shelf.”

It became clear why she wanted to use his first name. Several times, she used the folksy retort, “Say it isn’t so, Joe.”

Biden initially answered questions like a D.C. wonk, and all but ignored her when she tried to use his own primary-season comments about Obama against him.

But as the debate went on, he got it. He started looking into the camera and sharing personal stories.

“When my wife and daughter died and my two sons were gravely injured, I understand what it’s like as a parent to wonder what it’s like if your kid’s going to make it,” he said, pausing as he choked up. “The notion that somehow, because I’m a man, I don’t know what it’s like to raise two kids alone, I don’t know what it’s like to have a child you’re not sure is going to — is going to make it — I understand.”

He also regained the offense, matching Palin’s attacks on Obama’s Iraq policies with his own blistering criticism of McCain’s foreign policy as lacking any clear way forward.

When Palin called Obama’s proposal to withdraw troops from Iraq a “white flag of surrender,” Biden shot back, “With all due respect, I didn’t hear a plan.”

Moreover, as much as Palin use the word “maverick” to describe McCain, Biden challenged it.

“Look, all you have to do is go down Union Street with me in Wilmington or go to Katie’s Restaurant or walk into Home Depot with me where I spend a lot of time and you ask anybody in there whether or not the economic and foreign policy of this administration has made them better off in the last eight years,” Biden said. “And then ask them whether there’s a single major initiative that John McCain differs with the president on.”

That’s standard rhetoric in a campaign in its closing weeks, and really not much of a surprise. This forum was billed as a battle of personalities; instead it was a playing field of debate prep.

The result: As much as we are attuned to looking for the next game changer, in a race full of game changers, this probably wasn’t it.

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