ST. LOUIS -- Where's she been? (And where can she still take him?)
Take that, Tina Fey: You betcha Gov. Sarah Palin is back -- darn right (wink) -- and it might matter yet. She may not have been a clear winner Thursday night, but the McCain ticket has got a different story to shout out on Friday -- even if all Palin did was square-dance over the bar she had lowered herself.
She did more than that, actually, and that gives Sen. John McCain the narrowest of openings. In a political world that's falling apart for the GOP almost by the hour, Palin (plus a House vote Friday that puts the bailout package out of its miserable turn in the news cycle) can buy a little time.
Maybe she doesn't want to talk more about global warming, or about what vice presidents do, or about who's commanding US troops in Afghanistan. Perhaps she isn't entirely clear on where her running mate is on everything (it's only been, like, five weeks). Maybe (definitely) she really, really wants us to think she and McCain are "mavericks."
But Palin returned to the source of her popularity Thursday night at Washington University in St. Louis -- the folksy, aw-shucks, look-who's-running-for-vice-president appeal that reminds us that shortly before she was a drag on the ticket she was a phenom in her own right.
Sen. Joe Biden may have turned in the better debate performance. But it was Palin's night regardless, and she's still a force and a factor now. If this is still a race, John McCain will have some company for it yet.
"By surviving her encounter with Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. and quelling some of the talk about her basic qualifications for high office, she may even have done Senator John McCain a bit of good, freeing him to focus on the other troubles shadowing his campaign," Adam Nagourney writes in The New York Times.
Nagourney continues: "It was not a tipping point for the embattled Republican presidential ticket, the bad night that many Republicans had feared. But neither did it constitute the turning point the McCain campaign was looking for after a stretch of several weeks in which Senator Barack Obama seemed to be gaining the upper hand in the race."
Does this mean we get to talk about the presidential candidates again? "One debate will not erase doubts that have been building about Palin's capacity to serve as vice president, but the effect of the encounter may shift the focus away from the sideshow that Palin has become and put it back on the two presidential nominees and what they would do for the country," Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post. "Republicans had a positive reaction, as if a weight had been lifted off McCain's shoulders."
Palin was "poised and confident, speaking colloquially in a way that could appeal to independents," Bill Lambrecht writes in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "She was fluent, if not brilliant, on foreign policy. And even if she didn't actually answer some of moderator Gwen Ifill's questions, many voters may not have noticed and others probably won't hold it against her."
On style, ABC's George Stephanopoulos gives Palin an A and Biden an A-; both get Bs on accuracy.
"She beat expectations and she stopped the slide," Stephanopoulos said on "Good Morning America" Friday. "I think the race probably solidified where it was. If you came in liking Biden, you voted for him [in post-debate polls] and if you liked McCain-Palin you probably voted for them. But that's the problem for the McCain campaign."