- The Washington Times - Friday, October 3, 2008

ANALYSIS:

From her opening greeting to her Democratic opponent in the vice-presidential debate - “Hey, can I call you Joe?” - to her pledge to deliver “straight talk” to voters, Sarah Palin” href=”/themes/?Theme=Sarah+Palin” >Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin never looked out of her depth.

After a month when she was at the peaks of stardom at the Republican National Convention and the depths of late-night comedic ridicule, Mrs. Palin said the face-off with Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. was her chance to cut through the clutter and speak as plainly as she could.

“I like being able to answer these tough questions without the filter, even, of the mainstream media kind of telling viewers what they’ve just heard. I’d rather be able to just speak to the American people like we just did,” she said.

She was stern, conversational and occasionally off-topic, but not flustered. She peppered the 90-minute debate at Washington University in St. Louis with colloquialisms such as “you betcha” and “darn right,” and was never shy to confirm that she’s been part of the national campaign for only five weeks, ever since she was John McCain” href=”/themes/?Theme=John+McCain” >Sen. John McCain’s surprise pick for running mate.

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“It’s so obvious I’m a Washington outsider and someone just not used to the way you guys operate,” she told Mr. Biden.

That’s not to say she kept up with her opponent, whose three decades in the Senate helped him frame long, complex answers steeped in Washington minutiae of legislative back-and-forth, amendments and votes on final passage.

He clearly controlled the debate when it came to foreign affairs and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and held his own in detailing the record of Sen. Barack Obama.

At times he was lecturing, though never overbearing, and he even appeared on the verge of tears when he talked about raising his children after the death of his first wife.

“The notion that somehow, because I’m a man, I don’t know what it’s like to raise two kids alone, I don’t know what it’s like to have a child you’re not sure is going to - is going to make it - I understand,” he said.

Still, he had his own goofs, including placing the executive branch of the government in Article I of the Constitution, which defines the legislature while Article II lays out the executive.

But Mr. Biden was the known quantity; Mrs. Palin is not, and she was clearly on the hot seat. Moderator Gwen Ifill seemed determined to test her, and Mrs. Palin repeatedly found herself defending specifics about her own record, her stances versus Mr. McCain‘s, and her knowledge of Washington.

She was at her most poised when talking about energy and climate change - issues with which she’s had extensive experience in Alaska. She was at her weakest when talking about foreign policy, including stumbling over the commander of the NATO force in Afghanistan, mislabeling Army Gen. David D. McKiernan as “McClennan.”

Mrs. Palin has become a Rorschach test for voters, in particular suburban women and former supporters of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton who both campaigns acknowledge are key to victory in November.

Some women love her, arguing she’s the everywoman who has excelled. Others say she’s a poor imitation of Mrs. Clinton and express anger at Mr. McCain for selecting her.

But the folks she was addressing Thursday night were those in the middle, the average voters she talked about, and to, repeatedly. She mentioned “hockey moms” within the first 10 minutes of the debate and said she measures the country’s health by parents at their children’s sporting events.

“You know, I think a good barometer here, as we try to figure out has this been a good time or a bad time in America’s economy is go to a kids’ soccer game on Saturday and turn to any parent there on the sideline and ask them, “How are you feeling about the economy?”

Mrs. Clinton, in a statement issued after the debate, said Mrs. Palin only offered “more of the same policies of the Bush administration” and praised Mr. Biden as someone who “understands both the economic stresses here at home and the strategic challenges in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the world.”

Whatever her effect on voters at large, her effect on Mr. McCain’s own campaign is clear: Crowds have surged, and so has fundraising. The Republican National Committee Thursday night announced it collected $66 million in September, a one-month record.

The question is how she will play in those places where Mrs. Clinton exposed vulnerabilities in Mr. Obama.

Mrs. Clinton won the Democratic primaries in the key big states that will be decisive in November, including Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan and Ohio.

Mr. McCain’s campaign on Thursday announced he was pulling his campaign commercials and most staff out of Michigan to focus more on Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

And Pennsylvania is exactly where they hope Mrs. Palin can appeal to the Clinton voters who have been lukewarm at best to Mr. Obama.

“Our polling will show us taking a considerable portion of Democrats outside the Philadelphia media market. For us, Democrats in Pennsylvania are going to be a key focus for our campaign,” said McCain strategist Greg Strimple.

But national public polling suggests Mrs. Palin’s effect has worn off.

The Gallup Poll, which showed Mr. McCain winning married women by 15 percentage points in early September, just after Mrs. Palin’s convention speech, now shows him about tied with Mr. Obama.

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Meanwhile, Mr. McCain trails badly among unmarried women and men, and leads among married men.