VP debate : Biden versus Palin or Obama versus McCain ?

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Given all that was said before the vice-presidential candidates debate by countless bloviators, commentators and those who masquerade as political reporters but never actually stray one inch from the campaign cocoon, the most remarkable thing is that it wasn’t really about Joe Biden and Sarah Palin at all.

By Jurek Martin in Washington

It ought to have been, if for no other reason that, historically, roughly one in three vice-presidents move up one slot. It was their chance to impress themselves on the country. But the names both dropped most frequently in St Louis on Thursday night were Barack Obama and John McCain, the heads of their respective tickets

This does not mean that they did not establish their own identities. Mr Biden was senatorial but a man of the people, who has known his own personal tragedies, and was more concise than he sometimes is. Critically, he took Governor Palin seriously, never lapsing into anything resembling condescension.

She far surpassed the dismal standards set in recent television interviews with two national networks. Dressed in black, apart from the red shoes, and with her hair mostly down, she was perky, colloquial, as befits a Walmart mom from Alaska. She was well, if rigidly, prepared on policy and quite comfortable in the debate forum, until she tired in the last half hour and lapsed into repetition.

At the very least, given recent opinion polls that have revealed a majority of Americans believing her unqualified for national office, she gave her Republican base reason to believe that Senator McCain’s choice of her as a running mate was something more than a wild throw of the dice. Whether she persuaded anybody else is another matter.

Hers was the lower hurdle, because he has been versed in the cut and thrust of national and global politics for over 30 years against her half a dozen, all in a remote state like no other. She understood the value of her modest roots perfectly, from her first “darn right” and “Joe six-pack” in her opening answer to all the “betchas” and “goshes” that came later. Whatever else, she spoke the language of the people, even to the point of her Bush-like pronunciation of “nucular.”

Neither made anything approaching a mistake. Ms Palin has been coached in foreign policy by Randy Scheuneman, Mr McCain’s neo-conservative adviser, and she repeated his lines down pat, on Israel, Iran, North Korea, “the Castro brothers,” while naturally extolling the merits of Gen David Petraeus, the US regional commander. She told Mr Biden, predictably and patriotically, that “your plan is a white flag of surrender in Iraq.”

The problem was that this was right up Senator Biden’s street. As current chairman of the foreign relations committee, he was able, without breaking sweat, to connect all what he saw as the horrors of this president’s foreign policies to John McCain. With Mr Bush’s approval ratings down in the mid-20s, it is not a connection any Republican wants made.

Maybe his best line, after she had virtuously, but abstractedly, proclaimed on the importance of rebuilding Afghanistan, was “we spend more money in three weeks in Iraq than we have in seven years in Afghanistan.” There was no response.

Still, at the end of the day, it is doubtful this debate made any difference to what happens five weeks from now, regardless of its high expectations. The national mind is on the credit catastrophe and the extent to which it undermines a very fragile economy. Both Senator Biden and Governor Palin made their party pitches, but these arguments are principally the preserve of the heads of the tickets. And they are not cutting in favour of the Republican Party at present.

Financial Times

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