Archive for October 3rd, 2008

Biden Wins, Palin Survives

Those who tuned in to the Vice Presidential debate expecting to see Palin collapse in a Tina Fey moment were sorely disappointed.  Palin delivered a credible, if at times evasive and certainly not stellar performance.  CNN’s post-debate poll shows Biden winning 51-36%, and CBS shows a Biden win of 46 – 21%. It’s telling about the state of the campaign that the reaction of most Republicans is not one of disappointment over the results, but relief that their candidate survived.

Sarah Palin was clearly coached and offered well-rehearsed answers, sometimes in complete defiance of the question asked.  That’s not new for a politician, but her disciplined refusal to veer too far from the script is probably the reason Biden’s performance was judged by most as much better.  Still, one can’t dismiss Palin as merely scripted.  I’ve been in some kind of public speaking position ever since high school debate.  It is not easy to prepare for a 90 minute debate, learn a variety of answers, stay disciplined, remember what to say without flubbing up, and to do so in perhaps the most pressure packed situation one could imagine.  Palin’s credibility and political career were on the line; she came through.   She obviously doesn’t have the knowledge of world affairs and the issues that one might like.  That’s understandable, she’s been involved in Alaskan politics, not national affairs.  But she does have the temperment and discipline not to wilt under pressure, and given that it’s still possible she’ll end up a heart beat away from the President, I do have a sense of relief about that.

Joe Biden, however, gave the performance of his life.  I have to admit here that I’m biased.  I not only supported Joe Biden early in the Democratic primary race (he didn’t last very long), but I liked him back when I was working in Washington for Senator Larry Pressler (R-South Dakota), whose office in the Russell Senate Office Building was next to Biden’s.  Biden was friendly, and I probably chatted briefly with him over a dozen times, to the point that he at least would recognize me and remember things about earlier conversations.  He also had a reputation as a really solid, young, Senator (he was in his early forties then), well respected.  I also realized listening to him last night that while I disagree with his penchant for foreign policy interventionism, he’s driven by a strong sense of ethics, and a belief in international cooperation.

So that bias noted, I think ultimately last night’s debate will simply keep this race on track for Obama.  The latest national polls show him opening up a sizable lead.  Even the GW/Battleground poll, which still showed McCain up by 2% on Monday, now has Obama up 7% (Later update: That was on Real Clear Politics at 8:30 AM; now at 10:30 they have the lead at 3%.  I assume the current one is correct, perhaps the first one was the one day results or some mix up).   McCain is also pulling out of Michigan to focus his resources on the states he needs to win — the states Bush won in 2004.  For those who think in terms of strategy, the battle is being fought on McCain’s territory now, not Obama’s.   States like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, once thought to be in play, now look to go “blue.”  Ohio, Florida, Virginia and even North Carolina – states McCain absolutely needs to win – are toss ups.    If this were a football season, McCain would need Obama to lose the last five games while he wins them in order to come out on top.  That has happened in the NFL, and can happen in politics, but it’s unlikely.

While Palin survived last night, she didn’t really do anything to help McCain except energize the base.  The base was in a funk, worried that the Palin they fell in love with in St. Paul simply wasn’t up to prime time.   Now, at least, it appears she’s unlikely to be a major embarrassment that destroys the campaign.  This will keep some money flowing, and provide needed energy to the GOP on election day.   But as the post-debate polls show, for the average listener, simply learning that Palin is not an idiot is not enough to make them vote McCain.   Let’s get real here: Vice Presidential candidates rarely help a candidate, the adage is that they must “do no harm.”  The fact Biden performed so well means that to swing voters, this debate does little to nothing to help McCain.   People noticed that she tended to stick to well scripted themes, repeated later in the debate, while Biden was sharp and focused.  Biden’s speciality in the Senate is foreign affairs, and it was in that portion of the debate when his answers clearly trounced Palin’s.

The right will cling to the notion she “connected” with average folk.  I suspect she connected very well with conservatives and the GOP base.   But Biden clearly struck a human chord too, especially when talking about his family and his concerns.  Both candidates were more likable and both connected better than either McCain or Obama last week.

If Palin had collapsed under the pressure, the election would be effectively over.  If Biden had disappointed — if he had been too aggressive, or mean to Palin — her performance might have been good enough to win.  But with the financial crisis remaining in the headlines, the story line from this debate is “Biden Wins, Palin Survives,” and thus the GOP ticket retains a chance of a comeback should Obama stumble, or McCain do fantastically well in the last two debates.

Moving forward, expect the GOP to do what Hillary did as Obama pulled away during the primaries: employ the kitchen sink strategy.  Throw everything negative at them they can, and hope to somehow stop his momentum.  In the primaries this worked to an extent because Obama knew he could not respond too aggressively against Clinton because he would need her and her supporters for the general election campaign.  With McCain, if the polls tighten, Obama won’t have that barrier to deal with, and could come back hitting hard.   The next month will be interesting, but at this point it’s starting to feel like a landslide for Obama.

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