Champ vs. Doggone

The debate’s winners: Palin and Biden. Its loser: McCain.

Sarah Palin and Joe Biden

The puzzle of the vice-presidential debate looked as if it was going to be relatively easy. We knew the words we would use to describe it— embarrassing, gaffe, and twaddle. All that was left was to figure out which candidate to fix them to. Either Joe Biden would fulfill his role as the man known for producing word clouds before that became an Internet term or Sarah Palin would produce one of those fearless answers that proved the topic she was certain about was one with which she had only passing familiarity.

It turned out to be harder than that to score. Those words will sit unused. People watching for a car crash were disappointed. Palin did well, and so did Biden. He was the winner by my standard—he knew his brief, he kept himself in check, and he was commanding. The CNN and CBS post-debate polls called it for Biden. The Fox focus group (not an exact comparison) called it for Palin.

But regardless of who won or lost, a vice-presidential debate doesn’t matter unless it produces a major gaffe. This one didn’t. So, people will vote on the person at the top of the ticket, and by that criterion, even if you think Palin won the debate, it’s hard to see how she changed the race much. That’s not great news for John McCain. Both national and state polls are going in the wrong direction for him.

What Palin did do is stop the bleeding. Six in 10 voters see her as lacking the experience to be an effective president, and one-third are now less likely to vote for McCain because of her. Those numbers might improve. If nothing else, McCain will now have an answer when he gets questions about why he picked Palin. It was those kinds of questions that made him irritable and sarcastic in interviews this week. Now he can just point to the debate.

Palin’s performance will also allow the campaign to keep up the media war. As Palin put it in her closing statement, she was able to talk without the filter. But a little straight talk: Palin’s problem with the press was not that we filtered her answer but that she had no answer for us to filter. Another quibble: She said she wasn’t going to answer some of moderator Gwen Ifill’s questions but then at the end took credit for taking tough questions. I think they call that chutzpah in Wasilla. Nevertheless, she and her allies will keep up the fight—which is great, because press-bashing rallies the base in a way that is not unappealing to middle-of-the-road voters. All voters hate the press.

The 90-second format, with little time for follow-up, favored Palin. She has one answer. She doesn’t appear to have a second one, and she never had to give one. To the television audience, she no doubt looked in command. For those who were worried about her capacity given her horrible interviews with Katie Couric, her performance suggested something important: that she could grow. In a focus group pollster Peter Hart held in St. Louis, Mo., the day of the debate for the Annenberg Public Policy Center, a number of participants said she lacked experience but suggested she could grow into the job. By doing well, Palin showed she studied and could hold her own. That’s a low standard, but as a political standard, being used by the voters who will determine the election, she passed.

Republicans are no doubt thrilled with the performance, and that matters. The McCain team says they’ve surpassed Bush’s performance in 2004 in the number of volunteers making phone calls and knocking on doors. Palin’s performance will keep them dialing and knocking. She’s also helped her future prospects in the party, too. Partisans could excuse her bad interviews as press bias, but anyone who wants a future as a national politician in 2012 or beyond needs to perform in a debate.

But all of this takes McCain only so far. His campaign has been bleeding for reasons other than Sarah Palin. The issue of the moment is the economy, and that’s Obama’s issue. That’s why Obama is ahead in the national polls and now ahead in a score of battleground states. It’s why McCain had to pull campaign operations out of Michigan. McCain couldn’t overcome the bad economy there. Yes, Michigan has been a state that has been hard hit, but the economy’s bad everywhere.

Those who watched Biden during the primaries knew he could do very well on the issues in a debate. His answers have strong punctuation at the end. He was particularly sharp when talking about Afghanistan and Pakistan. He also scored political points providing a useful sound bite for his candidate when he questioned whether John McCain was really a maverick. The McCain team doesn’t think their candidate can win if he can’t convince swing voters he’s a maverick—that’s why Palin used the word repeatedly.

Biden also kept his erratic character in check. In every cutaway shot, he looked as though he was listening attentively, and he treated Palin with respect (though he could be heard to sigh on occasion). And when he broke down when talking about the death of his first wife and daughter, it seemed genuine.

At times what was supposed to be a throw-down turned into a hoedown as the candidates tried to out-folksy each other. Sarah Palin took us to the sidelines of the soccer games. (First hockey, now soccer—we’ll be getting a spring sport soon.) Biden took us to the gas station and Home Depot. Palin was dropping her G’s and using expressions like doggone. Joe was speaking to the Catholics with “God love him” and reminding us a few times that his father called him “Champ.” I’m just glad there wasn’t dancing. Although, if there were, we might have been able to use those words.