Thursday, October 2, 2008

— ST. LOUIS — Millions of Americans are expected to tune in Thursday night to the high-stakes debate between usual-also-rans of the presidential contest: the candidates for vice president.

The spin has been intense from both sides.

First, Democrats portrayed her as a small-time mayor from the nation’s most remote state, a one-time beauty queen who was wholly unworthy of becoming vice president of the United States.

Now, though, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is a wily political tactician, skilled in the sublime art of debate and fully able to go head-to-head with one of the Senate’s most cerebral veterans, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.

What happened? Simple - a vice-presidential debate is scheduled for Thursday, and the time-honored tactic is to talk up your opponent’s prowess in hopes of lowering expectations for your own performance.

“You’ve got to build up expectations so you can knock them down. That’s the way the game is played, but fortunately, it’s only played by people who know better. Nobody else takes it seriously,” said Steve Hess, a longtime presidential historian who was a White House speechwriter for President Eisenhower.

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Polls show that Mr. Obama seized on the momentum after the first presidential debate on Friday, taking a solid lead in the battleground states of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The financial firestorm raging on Capitol Hill has focused attention on the Democrat’s key issue, the economy, and pushed his rival’s top issue, national security, to the side. While Mr. McCain’s foreign policy credentials match Mr. Biden’s, Mrs. Palin’s resume is thin, even compared with that of first-term senator Mr. Obama, and voters tell pollsters they are looking for reassurance that she could step in as president should her 72-year-old running mate be unable to serve.

Although some viewers of the debate will be content to hear a thoughtful exchange of opposing views by the two nominees, others will be looking for the political version of a high-speed car crash [-] that one devastating sound bite that will define a vice-presidential nominee for the race, and maybe a lifetime.

With that in mind, each side has had only wonderful things to say about the other’s vast Socratic skills.

“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.

Related stories:

Debate showing key for Palin’s campaign

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Despite the posturing, there is little doubt that Mrs. Palin must answer the question: Is she qualified to be a heartbeat away from being the next commander in chief?

Trail Times blog: At betting booth, odds are against Palin

Will she use her femininity, even cry?

“While I would discourage frequent and certainly manipulative crying, if it is an appropriate emotion to have in a situation, Palin shouldn’t be afraid to show that emotion,” said Roxanne Rivera, chief executive officer of Syntactics Communication Skills, a company that offers presentation and speaking skills training to executives.

“She governed Alaska femininely dressed and at times with her children at the office with her,” Mrs. Rivera said. “I think she learned how to use her femininity to her advantage then, and I hope that she won’t try to start thinking and acting like a man now in order to appeal to more voters.”

Mr. Biden has his own problems. Although he says he’s debated “an awful lot of tough, smart women” in the Senate, including Mrs. Clinton, political strategists say he sometimes comes off as condescending or abrasive. If he flashes his 1,000-watt smile, he could look patronizing or, worse, sexist.

But if he holds back, Mrs. Palin could win on points simply by surviving.

The two nominees hunkered down on Wednesday, with Mrs. Palin practicing outdoors, near a creek at Mr. McCain’s Arizona home. Even that was a cause for criticism - two MSNBC evening news hosts mocked the image, saying politicians should prepare for debates in similar settings to the actual forum and quipping it inspired the term “up a creek” without a paddle.

Mr. Biden has been out of public view since Sunday, huddled with advisers and Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, who has been playing the role of Mrs. Palin. The pair have been practicing on a makeshift stage in a converted gym at a hotel in Wilmington, Del., where Mr. Biden spent much of the day and evening Wednesday.

• Christina Bellantoni contributed to this report from Washington.

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