Monday, September 29, 2008

One of the hopefuls has a reputation for talking and talking until he sticks his foot in his mouth. The other has not held a press conference as a vice-presidential hopeful, takes weekends off, and last week barred reporters from her first-ever meeting with a world leader.

It’s Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. versus Gov. Sarah Palin, and the stakes are magnified because of the indecisive contest between their running mates.

“After an inconclusive first debate with the top of the ticket, the Palin-Biden event will be must-see TV,” said Republican strategist Scott Reed.

The Republican vice-presidential candidate will take two days off before the debate Thursday to hold intensive prep sessions. Her campaign refuses to say who is playing the Delaware senator in mock debates.

Meanwhile, the 35-year veteran Democratic senator who will face off with her in St. Louis is practicing this week, too, with Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm standing in as Mrs. Palin.

Mr. Biden faces huge pitfalls, from the danger of appearing too eager to beat up on a mother of five, or the very real possibility that he will be deemed aloof or condescending. The Palin camp is lowering expectations for their candidate, acknowledging her opponent’s vast experience on foreign policy and his debating skills.

“Millions will watch, and the campaign should let Palin be Palin - a reformer who will shake up Washington and the old-boy network,” Mr. Reed said. “Biden will be on the defense from the opening and needs to not lecture or talk down to Palin.”

The two running mates will be questioned by Gwen Ifill, senior correspondent on PBS’ “The NewsHour.” Each candidate will have 90 seconds to respond to a question, followed by a two-minute discussion. That is tighter than Friday’s presidential encounter, when the candidates had up to five minutes to mix it up.

Although the first-term Alaska governor burst onto the scene out of nowhere, wowing conservatives and leaving liberals speechless, she has become the butt of jokes on late-night talk shows and fake news programs. “Saturday Night Live” again opened its show with cast member Tina Fey playing the governor, mocking her interview last week with CBS’ Katie Couric.

“Katie, I’d like to use one of my lifelines. I want to phone a friend,” she said when stuck on a foreign-policy question.

On Sunday, Mr. McCain shrugged off criticism of Mrs. Palin, especially that she is too inexperienced in foreign affairs.

“I’m so excited about the reaction that Sarah Palin has gotten across this country, huge turnouts, enthusiasm, excitement,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.” “She knows how to communicate directly with people. They respond in a way that I’ve - that I’ve seldom seen.”

For his part, Sen. Barack Obama deflected questions about whether he thought Mrs. Palin was qualified to be president.

“I think it’s important for the American people to make a judgment based on what they hear from Sarah Palin herself,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “I think that I’m more concerned about the fact that she doesn’t seem to have any differences with President Bush and would continue the same policies.”

Mr. Biden is widely considered one of the top foreign-policy experts in the Senate, where he heads the Foreign Relations Committee. He has traveled widely throughout the Middle East for years, and first joined the Senate when Mrs. Palin was 8 years old.

After last week’s presidential debate, Mr. Biden said what he will not do in his debate:

“I’m not going to do that condescending stuff John did tonight. You know, ‘My friend knows if he had the experience.’ I’ve traveled all those places John traveled to,” he said.

“I think what we’ve got to do is, we’ve got to talk about the future, what we’re going to do, how we’re going to change it, how we’re going to make us a respected nation again worldwide. You know, and so I think it’s about me and the listener, not so much me and Sarah Palin.”

Meanwhile, Mrs. Palin met Sunday with a group of military mothers at a Philadelphia eatery, the third day of a swing through the Democratic stronghold.

Along with her 14-year-old daughter, Willow, she spent about 45 minutes sipping a skinny white chocolate mocha and talking privately with four women whose children are serving in the military overseas.

Mrs. Palin’s son, Track, 19, is deploying for service in Iraq.

Again, her aides kept reporters at a distance during the visit, although Mrs. Palin answered one question about the $700 billion agreement reached in Congress and the administration early Sunday to bail out the financial industry.

“I’m thankful that John McCain is able to have some of those provisions implemented in that Paulson proposal,” she said. “I’m glad that John McCain’s voice was heard.”

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