ST. LOUIS -- Maybe Sarah Barracuda knows her head fakes.
Might the stumbling, halting performances have been the best thing that could have happened to Gov. Sarah Palin?
Surely she can clear the bar Tina Fey set for her. Certainly she's been studying up on issues that move beyond Alaska's proximity to Russia. Naturally she'll find a way to ease in some zingers that she knows better than most will be the soundbites people remember. (And if all else fails -- blame the refs.)
It's a face-off of a peculiar sort on tap for 8 pm CT (9 pm ET) Thursday: Palin and Sen. Joe Biden will be measured on their interactions with each other, but mostly they'll be measured against themselves. And, sorry, Joe, most of the public is tuning in to see only one of the two candidates on stage at Washington University in St. Louis.
This is the Palin-Biden debate -- though really it will be Palin's night, the single biggest opportunity for the nation to see its celebrity candidate doing something close to approximating the work she'd be presumed to have to do should she win.
And with a fresh round of national and state-level polls showing some Obama separation -- and some Palin drag -- there may be no better chance for the McCain-Palin ticket to jump back into the ballgame.
(What does it say about the McCain-Palin team's confidence that the conservative noise machine was trying to drown out the moderator before a question has been asked? And when will Team McCain get introduced to the Google?)
This is star power, fading:
"Skepticism about Sarah Palin has soared since she entered the national political stage, with six in 10 Americans now doubting her qualifications for office and fewer than half convinced of her grasp of complex issues," ABC polling director Gary Langer writes of the new ABC News/Washington Post numbers.
"In advance of her debate against Joe Biden tonight, Palin now looks more like a drag than a boost to the GOP ticket: Thirty-two percent of registered voters say her selection makes them less likely to support John McCain for president, up from 19 percent last month," Langer writes. "Just 35 percent say Palin has the experience it takes to serve effectively as president, down a dozen points since early September; 60 percent think not, up 15."
"Public assessments of Sarah Palin's readiness have plummeted, and she may now be a drag on the Republican ticket among key voter groups," Jon Cohen and Jennifer Agiesta write for The Washington Post. "Though she initially transformed the race with her energizing presence and a fiery convention speech, Palin is now a much less positive force: Six in 10 voters see her as lacking the experience to be an effective president, and a third are now less likely to vote for McCain because of her. . . . In early September, independents offered a divided verdict on Palin's experience; now they take the negative view by about 2 to 1."
With that as backdrop, "Any mistake or gaffe by Palin could be fatal," ABC's George Stephanopoulos reported on "Good Morning America" Thursday. "If she has a moment like she had in her interviews with Charlie Gibson or Katie Couric and draws a blank, that could be fatal for the McCain campaign because the numbers are riding on her so much."
What to expect: "In his debate against Palin tonight, Biden will try to show gracious restraint, and focus his attacks against McCain, Obama campaign aides tell ABC News. Meanwhile, McCain campaign aides say Palin will attempt to aggressively take the fight to Obama."
On the bright side -- does this mean the Supreme Court is off the table for Thursday night?
The freshest Palin memory is of the last piece of the Katie Couric interview: Palin seemingly not able to name a Supreme Court case other than Roe v. Wade that she disagrees with (and -- surely setting off alarm bells among social conservatives -- saying she does believe the Constitution protects a right to privacy).
"Hmmm," Palin said after a brief silence that she soon filled with words. "Well, let's see. There's -- of course in the great history of America there have been rulings that there's never going to be absolute consensus by every American. And there are those issues, again, like Roe v. Wade, where I believe are best held on a state level and addressed there. So you know, going through the history of America, there would be others but . . . ."
ABC's Ariane de Vogue offers a lifeline: "Dred Scott v. Sanford, 1857, which held that blacks -- slaves or free -- could not be or become U.S. citizens; Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896, [where] the court upheld racial segregation under the doctrine separate but equal]; Korematsu v. United States, 1944, [which] upheld the internment orders for Americans of Japanese descent during World War II."
Another answer that would have worked, per ABC's Jake Tapper: "Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called the Supreme Court's recent Boumediene v. Bush decision -- ruling that Gitmo detainees have a Constitutional right to challenge their detention in U.S. courts -- 'one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.' "
Keep in mind that Palin's appeal is not necessarily on substantive grounds -- and that what she does and says connects with voters in a way media elites just don't/can't/won't get.
"Despite the potential limits of her appeal, Palin has exhibited a rare ability to establish an emotional connection with Republican women who flock to her rallies," Maeve Reston writes in the Los Angeles Times. "In interviews with more than 20, few mentioned specific issues or shared ideology to explain their support -- more often they described Palin as 'real,' 'gutsy' and 'tenacious.' "
Will this work Thursday? "Palin sliced and diced the more experienced, data-driven legislator and another foe during some two dozen debates in Alaska's 2006 gubernatorial race," David Saltonstall writes in the New York Daily News. "She did it not with sharp discourses on policy, but with the same talent she's shown since becoming the Republican veep choice -- a folksy tone, delivered in meandering, run-on sentences that mostly kill the clock but occasionally slice like a knife."
Does this all mean she might not be a disaster? "The smart money says Palin will emerge with, at most, superficial wounds," Michelle Cottle writes for The New Republic. "In part, this is about the expectations game: Post-Katie, the bar has been set so low for Palin that, unless she faints or vomits on air, her team will rush to declare a victory--not just for her, but for all of Joe Six-Pack America. But it is also about Palin's particular skill set, the audience she's playing to, and the nature of the political media."
Yet it's a hard format for her to win, and an easy one for her to lose:
"Thursday night's debate in St. Louis gives her a chance to overcome the doubts in a 90-minute showcase, the first time most Americans outside Alaska will see her in a lengthy give-and-take session," the AP's Beth Fouhy writes. "On the other hand, a poor performance against Biden, the Delaware senator, could cement a negative image for the rest of the campaign."
Will blizzards of words snow us all under? (This moderator -- like this audience -- has a shovel.)
"The debate arrives at a knife's-edge moment for Alaska Gov. Palin," Cathleen Decker writes in the Los Angeles Times. "The candidate whose popularity flourished after her convention speech -- delivered with the aid of a teleprompter -- offered in the [Couric] interview what appeared to be shards of disconnected talking points."
"Republican Sarah Palin -- under intense scrutiny for her few unscripted remarks as a candidate and losing the confidence of voters -- faces the first extended audition of her capabilities, knowledge, and ability to improvise since she became the nominee," Sasha Issenberg writes for The Boston Globe. "Democrat Joe Biden -- a master of televised bombast as a two-time presidential candidate and assertive Senate committee chairman -- faces the challenge to find his footing as a secondary figure on stage, balancing the roles of foil, inquisitor, and bystander."
USA Today's Martha T. Moore: "Tonight's wild card: How will Palin handle the intricacies of policy without a teleprompter? . . . The unknown for tonight: Whether the Delaware senator will say something condescending, controversial or clumsy."
"Sarah Palin can't sound like comedian Tina Fey," Newsday's Craig Gordon writes. "Joe Biden can't sound like, well, Joe Biden."
Good TV, at the very least: "With all their potential for pitfalls and insta-classic moments, the pair has made the build up to the showdown, to take place here Thursday night at Washington University, feel more like a NASCAR race than a serious political forum: the audience may be tuning in as much in anticipation of cringe-inducing pile-ups as they are to watch the typical parry-and-thrust of debate," Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith write for Politico.
Advice for Palin, from Bob Shrum, via The Washington Post: "Palin has her marching orders: Don't answer the question that's asked but shift to attacks on Obama, Biden, the Washington elite and the 'Bridge to Nowhere.' After debate camp, she probably has 15 or 20 such deflections in the can, an easier task than filling in her chasm of substantive knowledge. And she has always her value-oriented homilies to fall back on."
From Ed Rogers: "It's time for the McCain campaign to turn mama's picture to the wall and get rough. Palin needs to attack Obama for being the extreme liberal that he is. Attack, attack, attack."
"She needs to make clear she grasps the difficult policy challenges that the next administration will confront. If she doesn't the debate will quickly turn into her own version of Thursday Night Live," blogs Howard Wolfson. "Sen. Biden's burden is the opposite. We all know he understands the issues. Instead he has to connect with Americans, making the case against John McCain without condescending to Gov. Palin and angering female voters."
Just in case things don't go according to plan -- get ready, Gwen. "On the eve of Thursday's vice-presidential debate in St. Louis, the McCain campaign is voicing confidence in moderator Gwen Ifill's professionalism while simultaneously sowing doubts about her ability to be fair after learning that she is working on a book about a new generation of black leaders called, 'Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama,' " per ABC's Teddy Davis, Matt Jaffe, and Imtiyaz Delawala.
"Does this help that she has written a book that is favorable to Sen. Obama? Probably not," John McCain told Fox News' Carl Cameron on Wednesday (though we're not sure how McCain is sure it's "favorable").
Palin says she'll work harder because of Ifill's book: "Its motivating to me even to hear Gwen's comments there," Palin told Sean Hannity, referring to a clip of Ifill discussing her book, "because again, that will make us work that much harder and that provides even more fairness and objectivity and choices for the voters on November 4th, if we try that much harder."
More from the Hannity interview, per ABC's Imtiyaz Delawala: Palin called "a May 2007 vote by Sen. Barack Obama against reauthorizing funding for troops in Iraq 'reckless' and 'irresponsible' and 'so political,' while noting that Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Joe Biden had criticized his running mate last fall for voting against the bill."
If Team McCain didn't know about the book until Wednesday, it's time for a new clipping service. Ifill wrote an essay in an August issue of Time that mentioned the book, and she her book was written up a few weeks later in The Washington Post.
"But on the eve of the debate, Ms. Ifill and her book became the fresh object of outrage on conservative talk radio, blogs and cable news after a right-leaning Web site, WND.com, posted an article late Tuesday with the headline, 'VP debate moderator Ifill releasing pro-Obama book,' " The New York Times' Jim Rutenberg reports. "The expressions of shock that met the headline were almost instantaneous, starting with the Drudge Report, which devoted a huge two-line headline to the article: 'VP Debate Moderator Releasing 'Age Of Obama' Book On Inauguration Day.' "
Said Ifill: "Since I haven't finished the book, it's interesting people think they know what's in it."
As for Biden -- he will be judged on how Biden he's able not to be: "Biden has spoken with longtime friends, including Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to serve as a major party's vice presidential nominee, and Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), about how to approach the debate," Perry Bacon Jr. writes in The Washington Post. "And his advisers brought in a female politician in her 40s, Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, to stand in for Palin in the practice sessions."
Said longtime Biden adviser Celinda Lake: "I think he could really crush her, but he has to do that in a way that is likable among women."
Think we'll hear about Scranton, anyone? "I think Biden should use his sense of humor and really turn this into a debate about who's folksier," Democratic strategist Donna Brazile tells The Wall Street Journal's Amy Chozick.
Careful going there: "Mr. Biden certainly can trace his roots to the working-class neighborhoods of Scranton, Pa., and Claymont, Del., where he was raised. But these days, his kitchen table can be found in a 6,800-square-foot custom-built colonial-style house on four lakefront acres, a property worth close to $3 million," Mike Mcintire and Serge F. Kovaleski write in The New York Times.
They continue: "Although he is among the least wealthy members of the millionaires club that is the United States Senate -- he and his wife, Jill, a college professor, earn about $250,000 a year -- Mr. Biden maintains a lifestyle that is more comfortable than the impression he may have given on the campaign trail. A review of his finances found that when it comes to some of his largest expenses, like the purchase and upkeep of his home and his use of Amtrak trains to get around, he has benefited from resources and relationships not available to average Americans."
And mind your facts: "When Joe Biden tells voters he understands the threat posed by Afghan extremists, he dramatically illustrates one reason why: His helicopter was 'forced down' on 'the superhighway of terror,' " per the AP's Calvin Woodward. "Actually, snow, not the enemy, persuaded the helicopter pilot to land and wait out a storm."
Meanwhile, at the top of the ticket (underscoring the stakes) . . . separation. It's Obama 49, McCain 40 in the new CBS News poll, with Obama's favorability rating soaring as McCain's drops.
"The trends signaled by this new wave of polls -- coming at what both sides view as a critical moment in the contest -- suggest that the contours of this race are taking form, and in a way that is not encouraging for Mr. McCain's prospects," Adam Nagourney and Megan Thee write in The New York Times.
Who suspended his campaign again? "Forty-five percent said Mr. McCain acted too quickly when he made a decision, compared with 29 percent who said he did not act quickly enough. For Mr. Obama, 23 percent said he acted too quickly, compared with 41 percent who said he did not act quickly enough," Nagourney and Thee write.
New battleground polls make a similar case: Time/CNN numbers have Obama up narrowly in Florida, Missouri, and Nevada -- and up big in Minnesota and Virginia.
"Obama is likely ahead in enough states right now to get 270 electoral votes," ABC's George Stephanopoulos reports. "Palin has become a bit of a drag on the Republican ticket so far, and voters are even questioning their commitment to McCain because of that. McCain officials know that this puts so much more pressure on her at Thursday night's vice presidential debate in St. Louis to come through with no major gaffes."
The Time national numbers: "Obama now leads McCain 50%-43% overall, up from 46%-41% before the parties' conventions a month ago. Obama's support is not just broader but sturdier; 23% of McCain supporters said they might change their mind, while only 15% of Obama's said they could be persuaded to switch."
The new AP poll has it Obama 48, McCain 41: "Barack Obama has surged to a seven-point lead over John McCain one month before the presidential election, lifted by voters who think the Democrat is better suited to lead the nation through its sudden financial crisis, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll that underscores the mounting concerns of some McCain backers," per the AP's Liz Sidoti.
One more national poll: "Barack Obama leads John McCain nationally by a margin of 46 percent to 42 percent, opening his biggest edge since the campaign entered the fall stretch after the two major party conventions, according to a new Ipsos-McClatchy poll," per McClatchy's Steven Thomma.
Some things even Palin can't fix: "The deeper problem, say growing numbers of worried GOP establishment types, is that while lurching around to win the daily and weekly news cycles, McCain has failed to give voters a broad, forward-looking explanation for why they should support him," James Carney and Michael Scherer write for Time. "McCain's national security experience and reputation as a reformer add substance to his theme of 'putting country first,' but they don't explain what a McCain presidency would mean, or how it would differ from the past eight years."
In the financial crisis, McCain is a candidate hamstrung by his own words: "The Arizona senator embraces his party's popular critique of government, frequently invoking the deregulatory rhetoric that has helped Republicans win five of the last seven presidential elections," Noam Levey writes for the Los Angeles Times. "But when a crisis or scandal makes headlines and sparks a public outcry, McCain is among the quickest in his party to call for robust government intervention."
Karl Rove maps a new way into an old issue for McCain: "While Mr. McCain argues that tax increases would harm our fragile economy, there is another powerful argument he has yet to deploy," he writes in his Wall Street Journal column. "He needs to make a principled argument against tax increases by grabbing Mr. Obama's favorite tax term -- 'fairness.' Mr. McCain should argue that fairness dictates that there are reasonable limits on how much government can take from someone. Nearly all Americans agree."
As for Wednesday night's Senate action -- forget the vote that got the bailout/stimulus package moving at last. The fun part came earlier.
"As the senators gathered to vote on the $700 billion financial rescue package on Wednesday evening, Mr. Obama walked over to the Republican side of the chamber to extend a greeting to Senator John McCain. He got a chilly response," Jeff Zeleny and Michael Cooper write in The New York Times. "While it took Mr. Obama several seconds to make his way over to see his rival, Mr. McCain barely pivoted his body as he took Mr. Obama's hand for a handshake that lasted just a moment. The eye contact was just as brief."
Speaking of fun -- what about Friday? "In the House, officials of both parties said they were increasingly confident that politically enticing provisions bootstrapped to the original bill -- including $150 billion in tax breaks for individuals and businesses -- would win over at least the dozen or so votes needed to reverse Monday's outcome and send the measure to President Bush," Carl Hulse writes in The New York Times.
Politico's David Rogers: "A stronger-than-expected Senate vote Wednesday night gives the White House new confidence that it has turned the corner and can win final approval from Congress Friday of Treasury's $700 billion rescue plan for the financial markets."
How'd they get there? "Deliberations took place behind the scenes Wednesday, as senators added breaks and sweeteners to their version of the economic rescue plan," ABC's Jake Tapper reports. "For many, the delicate negotiations were like walking a tightrope, as senators attempted to add enough enticements to win Republican House members' support, while still maintaining support from Democrats."
But skepticism remains: "I will not support this legislation because it is the wrong medicine." Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, said on ABC's "Good Morning America" Thursday.
Debate day for the veeps: Joe Biden and Sarah Palin are at Washington University in St. Louis for their 9 pm ET encounter.
Barack Obama spends Thursday in Michigan with back-to-back rallies. He begins with a 9:30 am ET rally in Grand Rapids, then heads to East Lansing for a second one at 2:30 pm ET.
John McCain heads to Denver for a 6:15 pm ET town hall meeting.
Also in the news:
It took him some time to say the words "Barack Obama" -- and he never got around to saying the words "John McCain" -- but Bill Clinton's solo debut for Obama hit the right points.
"Here's why you ought to be for Barack Obama," Clinton said, per Faye Fiore of the Los Angeles Times. "He's got better answers -- better answers for the economy, for energy, for healthcare, for education. He knows what it will take to get this country back on track."
Bloomberg's Kristin Jensen: "Clinton avoided attacks on McCain during his campaign remarks in Orlando, instead making a case that Obama has the right prescription for the financial crisis. Clinton asked supporters to compare Republican George W. Bush's eight-year economic stewardship with economic prosperity during his eight years in office."
Bill isn't the only rock star out there: "A deep bench of Democratic firepower - paired with star power from the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Jay-Z, who will hit the trail for Mr. Obama this weekend - is allowing Mr. Obama to take his campaign to several states every day," Christina Bellantoni writes in the Washington Times. "Sen. John McCain, by contrast, has fewer stars and is playing on a smaller map. The Republican nominee rarely splits from his wife, Cindy, and shares a stage more often than not with his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin."
The questions are starting: What if Obama wins, asks GOP strategist Todd Domke?
"If the moderator of this debate were someone who was writing a book that basically was 'The Age of McCain,' I have a feeling that a lot more of these publications would be saying that the person should not be doing it." -- Rudy Giuliani, raising curiosity about what a book titled "The Age of McCain" might be about.
"I was probably having a Joe Biden moment myself." -- Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., after saying that Biden "has a tendency to talk forever and sometimes say things that are kind of stupid."
Check out my debate blog from St. Louis this afternoon and evening.
And watch ABC NewsNOW's debate coverage online, starting at 8 pm ET and extending through a half-hour post-debate wrap-up show.
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