VP debate moves to top of marquee

Biden-Palin battle could make ratings history

Forget the presidential debates. The veepstakes has all the action, and this week’s match between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin could make ratings history.

“I love the vice presidential debate; it’s always the one I look forward to the most,” says Alan Schroeder, author of “Presidential Debates: 40 Years of High-Risk TV” and a journalism professor at Northeastern U. “The stakes are lower, so the candidates usually attack harder. It’s much better political theater.”

Anyone not remember Lloyd Bentsen’s stinging put-down of Dan Quayle in the 1988 veep debate when Quayle compared himself to JFK? “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

“The vice presidential debate usually draws the lowest ratings, but this could be the year that changes all that,” Schroeder says, mainly because of the Palin factor. “This is the mystery woman meeting the public almost for the first time. We’ve never had such a thing with a vice presidential candidate in history.”

Still, we have had a woman running for the vice presidency — Geraldine Ferraro on the 1984 Democratic ticket — and her sparring with then-incumbent V.P. George H.W. Bush holds the record for Nielsen ratings of vice presidential debates: 56.7 million viewers.

But Ferraro was not, as Palin has been, shielded from the media for so long a time after her addition to the ticket. Palin’s press exposure has been minimal, which can reduce the chance for gaffes or mistakes. But it also ups the pressure on her to perform when she finally opens herself to unscripted questions, which in turn will likely draw more viewers — perhaps more than the Ferraro-Bush debate — than had she been fielding questions all along.

There’s also the Ifill factor, as in Gwen Ifill, the PBS “News Hour” correspondent who will moderate the Biden-Palin face-off. Given how successful the McCain campaign has been in branding many tough questions for Palin as “sexist,” that attack will be harder to sustain against another woman posing the questions. Ifill has a “very down-to-earth, matter-of-fact, fair style,” says Allan Louden, director of graduate studies at Wake Forest U. and coach of its debate team for 30 years. “For a woman to go after a woman is maybe OK, so maybe Biden just sits back and watches” — along with millions of others who might be anticipating a womano-a-womano confrontation.

The lowest-rated debate, pitting Jack Kemp and Al Gore in 1996 and moderated by “News Hour” anchor Jim Lehrer, drew only 26.6 million viewers. Not coincidentally, the lowest rated presidential debate occurred the same year, between Bob Dole and Bill Clinton (36.1 million). That race wasn’t close, unlike the current one.

One issue that’s guaranteed to draw viewers — whether Palin has enough experience to be a heartbeat from the most powerful office on the planet — may already be having an impact. “It really bolsters McCain that she doesn’t have much experience,” Louden says. “The focus is on her, and his experience is treated as a given. Obama has been trying to make McCain’s experience an issue again, arguing that he has the wrong kind of experience.”

Louden says there also will be different audiences for this debate, a point the mainstream media haven’t really understood so far, he adds. “Palin doesn’t have to know much, not when the campaign has been trying to portray Washington media as elitist. She just has to meet a threshold of sincerity more than of knowledge, because if she can make the tough questions sound like they’re elitist, everyone west of the Mississippi gets it.”

With the format planned — a total of maybe five minutes of back-and-forth discussion per question — both Palin and Biden’s knowledge will have to be more broad than deep. “This format is going to keep the subject matter moving very quickly,” Schroeder notes. And with no limitation on questions, Ifill will be free to cover as wide a range of topics as she feels necessary.

“The presidential candidates are always very cautious in debates,” Schroeder says. “They’re really giving tight performances. The vice presidential candidates are looser.”

And when those candidates are a moose-hunting hockey mom and a wonky D.C. insider squaring off in primetime over the most pressing issues of the day, showrunners and scriptwriters can only dream of the ratings likely to come.