The Note: Soft Bigotry?

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."

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