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“We’ve looked at tapes of Governor Palin’s debates, and she’s a terrific debater,” said David Plouffe, campaign manager for Sen. Barack Obama. “She’s obviously a skilled speaker. We expect she’ll give a great performance.”

The senator from Delaware went further.

“She’s a smart, tough politician, so I think she’s going to be very formidable,” Mr. Biden said.

Meanwhile, the telegenic 44-year-old, who once decried the Delaware Democrat as a Washington insider with no history of bringing change, is doing exactly the same thing.

“I’ve never met Joe Biden, but I’ve been hearing his Senate speeches since I was in, like, second grade,” she said Monday to thunderous applause from campaign crowds.

“He’s a good debater,” she said with understatement.

A McCain aide said, without understatement: “On Thursday night, you’re going to see a smooth-talking salesman with 30 years’ experience in the Senate. He’s done 14 debates [-] the guy knows what he’s doing, and he won’t have any butterflies in his stomach.”

The vice-presidential debate will be a dramatic contrast in styles, unlike the staid affair staged last week by the candidates at the top of the tickets, Sen. John McCain and Mr. Obama. The 65-year-old senator is known for his foreign-policy prowess and an almost encyclopedic memory for places and events.

In the other corner, a self-described “hockey mom” who used brightly colored index cards - crib sheets, essentially - during her six debates in the run-up to her election as Alaska’s first female governor. She has been studying world affairs for a little more than a month, tutored by top Bush administration officials, but has already made several verbal gaffes in the few TV interviews she has given.

She’ll have one advantage - the format. Set out in a 31-page “memorandum of understanding” negotiated between the two campaigns, which governs everything from camera angle to lectern height, the format is expected to benefit Mrs. Palin.

In response to a question posed by moderator Gwen Ifill of the Public Broadcasting Service, each nominee will have 90 seconds to answer, and then there will be a two-minute period for the two to mix it up (the first presidential debate called for two, two-minute answers and five minutes of debate time).

Most political strategists think the governor can run out the clock on her answers (if she needs to) and hold her own in the open debate time.

But there is question as to which Mrs. Palin will show up. Will she follow Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and wear a power pantsuit? Will she have her long hair loose, or tightly wound in a bun? Will she be the growling pit bull in lipstick she was at the Republican National Convention, or the deer in the headlights she was considered to be in her TV interview with CBS’ Katie Couric.

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