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 Sunday, October 05, 2008

Sarah Palin campaigns on a wink and a prayer

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After a two-week run so bad that a lot of people were starting to wonder whether it was the riskiest game of expectation-lowering in memory, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin spent debate night with Joe Biden on Thursday winking and smiling her way to redemption.

For the past 10 days, Palin's fate as the funniest send-up subject on Saturday Night Live since Dana Carvey's George Bush was sealed with a series of clips of her being interviewed by NBC's Katie Couric that were downright scary in what they revealed -- not so much about her mind as about John McCain's.

It got so painful that at a certain point, the only thing more damning than Palin's fudgy answers were the reaction shots of Couric forcing herself with every fibre of her being to not actually react for fear of screaming, "Answer the question!" or "What are you talking about?!"

In St. Louis, Palin tried to disarm the power of wrong or missing answers by preemptively attributing any dodging to populist gumption instead of lack of pre-existing knowledge: "I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear," she said to Biden, "but I'm gonna talk straight to the American people."

The resulting disconnect between moderator Gwen Ifill's questions and Palin's answers made Palin's contribution more of an infomercial than a debate.

By halfway through, there were answers that unravelled into such incoherent blathering of unrelated keywords that during her response on nuclear proliferation she started to sound like one of those short-circuiting fembots in Austin Powers just before their heads exploded.

But that was OK because Palin, who by last week seemed in so far over her head that the only thing still showing above the quicksand was the updo bun, had one bottom line mission in the debate -- save the furniture.

She did that and more by assuaging the base and not making any major, game- changing mistakes. If you weren't frightened out of your wits by the prospect of Palin as the president of the United States at 9 p.m., you weren't frightened at 10:30.

Palin's other task was to launch the GOP's newest tactic for distancing the McCain/Palin ticket from George W. Bush and the party that dare not speak its name.

At one point, Palin, echoing Ronald Reagan's standout "There you go again" moment from the 1980 debate, said, "Say it ain't so, Joe, there you go again, pointing backwards again. You (prefaced) your whole comment with the Bush administration. Now, doggone it, let's look ahead."

Later, she added, "When we talk about the Bush administration, there is a time, too, when Americans say enough is enough with your ticket on constantly looking backwards and pointing fingers and doing the blame game."

Most Americans would have absolutely no clue as to what she was talking about and it's not just the syntax. Have Obama and Biden exaggerated wildly talking about Palin, McCain and Bush all being Republicans? Or by pointing fingers at the catastrophic economic wreckage from the past eight years and blaming the Bush administration? You don't have to look backwards to do that.

Biden, who must have had moments of wondering what game show set he'd wandered onto, sounded too senatorial at times. But it was hard not to on a stage with Palin, whose folksiness and accessibility are a major part of her appeal to the voters who identify with her in a "she's like me" way.

As for what this does for the rest of the race, the CNN post-debate poll of debate watchers had Biden winning 51 per cent to 36 per cent, but the conventional wisdom is that VP debates don't matter much.

More interesting, while Palin was seen as more likable, scoring 54 per cent to Biden's 36 per cent, 70 per cent said Biden was more of a typical politician and on the question of the candidates' qualifications for the presidency, 87 per cent said Biden is qualified and 42 per cent said Palin is qualified.

If Palin is more likeable and Biden is seen as a typical politician, which would normally be seen as a negative, why did twice as many of those same people say he's more qualified to run the country?

Maybe, in these tough times and in relative terms, a "typical politician" isn't such a bad thing to be.

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