The Palin-Biden contest Thursday night in St. Louis may be the most intensely followed fight since the 1975 "Thrilla in Manila" between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.
After the fight, Ali said of his defeated opponent: "Joe Frazier, I'll tell the world right now, brings out the best in me ... God bless him."
Republicans hope Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware brings out the best in Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin - by making more factual and/or historical errors than she does in what could turn out to be the most important vice-presidential debate ever.
The conventional wisdom that only the top of the ticket matters may not apply here, because the moose-skinning governor has become Sen. John McCain's lifeline to both the Republican voter base and to the swing voters who thrilled to Mrs. Palin's average-Sarah-next-door persona when Mr. McCain announced her as his choice for running mate on Aug. 29.
"Right after Sen. McCain announced her as his pick, she genuinely electrified the Republican base, but now the debate is a potential turning point for her and the McCain-Palin campaign," said Colin Hannah, founder of the religious advocacy group Let Freedom Ring. "She will either show she still has the star power to help McCain hold on to his base and win in November or show that she is not up to the job."
Mr. Biden has it all over her in experience, just as Mr. McCain wins hands down in that comparison with Sen. Barack Obama, whose most noteworthy accomplishment so far, according to fellow Democrat Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, is that he once gave a speech.
But as another fellow Democrat, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Wednesday, Mr. Biden "has a tendency to talk forever and sometimes say things that are kind of stupid."
As an example of what she had in mind, Mr. Biden said last month that President Franklin D. Roosevelt greeted the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 by giving a fireside speech on television. In 1929, Herbert Hoover was president and television was an exotic inventors' gadget - neither a consumer good nor a national news medium.
Some leading opinion makers traditionally on the right - from George Will and Peggy Noonan to Kathleen Parker and David Frum - have questioned whether Mrs. Palin has the right stuff or any stuff at all to command the armed forces, direct foreign policy and guide domestic economic policy if Mr. McCain, at 72 and with a history of cancer, wins and then suffers some medical incapacity.
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said that whether swing voters and blue-collar white ethnic voters like the way she answers moderator Gwen Ifill's questions Thursday night will depend in part on whether her handlers let "Sarah be herself."
Mr. Perkins said his biggest concern is that she not be "overscripted," adding that Mr. Will and Miss Noonan make important contributions but are applying an overly demanding standard for articulateness to Mrs. Palin.
"Not everybody's an intellectual," he said.
To add to the steepening mountain some Republicans and many Democrats think Mrs. Palin has to climb, former National Review publisher Wick Allison on Wednesday endorsed the Obama-Biden ticket, saying that the McCain-Palin view of the United States as on a mission to "defeat evil" abroad is a "theological expansion" of that mission sufficient to "make George Washington cough out this wooden teeth."
Mrs. Palin has seemed to espouse that "theological expansion" in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan on more than one occasion - and has been hammered by the press.