Oct 03 2008

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Palin Holds Her Own

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After all the hype and predictions concerning the vice presidential debate, it essentially ended as an asymmetrical draw.

With polls breaking their way, the Obama people needed a problem free night and Biden delivered.  The Chairman avoided gaffes or bouts of long-windedness.  He stated facts crisply and had a command of policy consistent with someone with his time in service. Biden was also restrained, almost muted, in his attacks on Sarah Palin, even though she all but baited him more than once. Biden came across as mature, informed and experienced; a solid vice presidential pick, generating no controversy.

For her part, Palin proved that she wasn’t the bumpkin or moron of recent media caricature, which was a sad if accurate barometer of where opinion hovered among the Commentariat in the hours before the debate.  Media coverage was almost titillated with the idea of a Palin meltdown. Carl Cameron from Fox News compared the mood in the auditorium to a NASCAR race, with the competing dread and expectation of a big crash.

But instead of crash and burn, America saw the Palin from her announcement and speech before the RNC. Though clearly nervous at first, Palin improved dramatically throughout the contest and proved a confident, feisty and capable debater. Where Biden was crisp and professional, Palin was warm and informal. While both sides made a strong pitch to the middle class, Palin’s first-person emotive appeals were more effective, if necessarily less detailed than Biden’s fact-laden presentations.

Gwen Ifill was the surprising unsteady presence for the evening, badly managing her charges, and deciding on an odd string of questions that barely probed candidate positions. Perhaps given the disclosure of her upcoming book on Barack Obama and the clamor from the Right regarding obvious conflicts of interest, she was somehow affected.

Recognizing that she potentially faced both Biden and Ifill as opponents, Palin broke with debate protocol and all but chose her own subjects to discuss, no matter what question was asked.  She defended this approach as a way to communicate directly with the American people. In her responses, Palin looked at the camera, not her moderator or opponent, and in the process created a conversation with voters amid a debate.

Both sides missed opportunities.

Biden’s breath of knowledge occasionally collided with his 90 second response time and need for message discipline in parrying some of Palin attacks. In one instance, he spent time on defense, flustered by Palin’s use of cherry-picked votes to demonstrate that Obama did not support the funding troops in Iraq.

For Palin’s part, she never tied Biden to his 1973 vote against the Alaska oil pipeline when she talked at length about energy security. And when Biden articulately laid out his rationale for his vote for and later opposition to the War in Iraq, Palin failed to note that the Biden test for intervention in the Sudan was eerily familiar to Bush’s in Iraq. She could have said more in defense of John McCain and his record on regulation.

In the end, both Biden and Palin succeeded. Biden made the case against McCain’s free market principles as a central cause in the current economic crisis and thus his oblique ties to the Bush administration. Palin was able to raise doubts about Obama on taxes, regulation and foreign policy.  She made a good case for McCain Palin on Washington DC reform.

But did it matter?

In the case of Palin, it certainly did.

McCain hasn’t had the lead since September 15th. Obama’s national lead has almost tripled since September 18th, where it now stands at 5.6% nationally, while also moving out in several key battleground states.1 Had Palin not performed effectively, it is hard to see how McCain could have staunched the bleeding.

In addition, Palin’s performance should have two additional, positive effects. It should mute conservative criticism of Palin and calls for her removal from the ticket, it should re-energize the conservative base which was lulled into uncertainty by recent Palin interview accounts. The debate also vindicates McCain’s choice of Palin as VP at a time when McCain needs it. McCain has endured the toughest two weeks of his campaign since his near death experience in 2007, taking fresh flack for his seemingly impulsive opportunism during political discussions on the economic stability program.

The impact of the debate on overall race is less certain. By all accounts, Biden’s gaffe-free performance enhances Obama’s chances of maintaining his lead going into the next presidential debate on Tuesday.

For McCain, with questions of Palin’s qualifications put to bed among the grass roots, and with the Congress having voted in favor of the Financial Stabilization program required to ease credit markets and head off an economic downturn, McCain gets a fresh opportunity to take on Obama without a crisis hanging overhead.

Obama has a 5.6% national lead.  However, the polling average for the last 33 days, taking into account both McCain and Obama leads, is Obama at +2.2%.

Result?  Obama is currently outperforming the median.  Can he hold and expand it for the next 30 days?  Or did he peak too soon?

We’ll see.

1 Polling data obtained from Realclearpolitics.com

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