It is one of the oldest adages in politics – once they start laughing at you, you're toast.
If Sarah Palin can't halt the guffaws Thursday night, John McCain's presidential campaign could be toast.
The 44-year-old Republican vice-presidential nominee is sealed away at McCain's Arizona ranch preparing for Thursday's debate with her Democratic counterpart Joe Biden, facing new questions about her suitability on the GOP ticket.
Those questions are no longer the exclusive domain of what the Republicans love to refer to as the "liberal media elite."
Now it is conservative commentators and party members who are getting very, very nervous.
Last weekend Palin crossed a new line in political parody when Saturday Night Live's Tina Fey got laughs by repeating, word-for-word, with no embellishment, Palin's answer to a question from CBS anchor Katie Couric.
If Thursday's debate is television's highest-rated vice-presidential debate ever – as expected – it might be because U.S. politics is now drawing the type of crowd that flocks to car races.
They say they are there for the speed, but a lot of them are there for the crash.
If there is an upside for Palin, it is that her interview last week with Couric, a performance that sent chills through even Republican strategists, was overshadowed by a tumultuous week that included a financial meltdown, a historic White House summit and a presidential debate.
It was only her third sit-down interview since she was selected by McCain at the end of August.
She will receive no such cover during 90 minutes of prime-time parrying with Biden in St. Louis.
There are now three instant Palinisms from that interview, the first one repeated by Fey in her SNL send-up.
On the bailout package:
"Ultimately, what the bailout does is help those who are concerned about the health-care reform that is needed to help shore up our economy, helping the –oh, it has got to be all about job creation, too." On Alaska's proximity to Russia giving her foreign policy credentials:
"It's very important when you consider even national security issues with Russia as Putin rears his head and comes into the airspace of the United States of America. Where, where do they go? It's Alaska. It's just right over the border. It is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right there. They are right next to ... to our state." On the media mocking her for saying she could see Russia from Alaska:
"It – it's funny that a comment like that was ... kind of made to ... cari – I don't know, you know? Reporters ... ." "Mocked?'' offered a helpful Couric.
"Yeah, mocked, I guess that's the word, yeah," Palin agreed.
The view of Russia from Alaska became a running joke even in her home state, as in this exchange at an Anchorage bar:
Local to visiting reporter: "First time in Alaska?"
Reporter: "First time in a long time."
Local: "Seen Russia yet?"
Or this, from David Letterman's Top 10 list of little-known Sarah Palin facts:
"Number two: to improve her foreign-policy experience, she recently wentTo be sure, the loquacious Biden is capable of a gaffe. Last week, he had the wrong president appearing on television, a medium that had not yet been invented, during the 1929 stock market crash.
to the International House of Pancakes."
He could undo a huge advantage by appearing bullying or sexist.
And we have been here before.
With questions swirling around her suitability as McCain's pick, Palin remained cloistered in a Minneapolis hotel room, then delivered a knockout speech in front of a national television audience.
But, analysts say, this is a much bigger challenge than delivering a canned speech from a teleprompter and if she does not raise her game, it goes to the question of McCain's judgment.
Joel Goldstein, an expert on the vice-presidency at Saint Louis University, says there has never been a more highly anticipated vice-presidential debate in U.S. history.
"We have never had a vice-presidential candidate who has been so inaccessible to the media and so limited to the extent they can answer questions about domestic policy and international affairs," he says.
"From what I've seen so far, she is the weakest vice-presidential candidate in my lifetime. And beyond."
The Wall Street Journal yesterday quoted unnamed Republican strategists who were worried the governor had flubbed mock debate questions in preparation sessions, and said her husband Todd Palin had expressed worry about the "frequent separation of his wife from her family, friends and Alaska staff."
Her family will join her at McCain's Sedona ranch.
She also sparked some controversy over the weekend by telling a voter at a Philadelphia campaign stop that U.S. troops in Afghanistan should cross the border into Pakistan to fight terrorism.
That sounded very much like the position of Democratic nominee Barack Obama, one that was criticized by McCain at Friday's debate in Mississippi.
"I don't think most Americans think that that's a definitive policy statement made by Governor Palin. And I would hope you wouldn't, either," McCain told ABC's George Stephanopoulos, on Sunday's This Week
Wednesday, October 01, 2008