Biden, Palin Avoid Major Gaffes in Economy, Foreign Policy Debate

Vice presidential candidates Sarah Palin and Joe Biden appeared to bring their A-games to their first and only debate, nimbly tangling on a broad range of issues from the economic crisis to the war in Iraq without making any of the gaffes some feared -- and others hoped -- they might make.

Meeting at Washington University in St. Louis Thursday night, the candidates concisely presented their positions, each playing to their strengths as public speakers, rather than their weaknesses.

photo of joe biden and sarah palin at vp debate in st. louis

For Sen. Biden, D-Del., that meant concise lawyerly arguments and references to his working-class roots.

For Alaska Gov. Palin, that meant relying on folksy colloquialisms and appealing to her base of "soccer moms" and conservatives.

The highly anticipated showdown between the veep candidates drew a huge audience. Preliminary results from the Nielson Company indicated that the 90 minute talk fest scored a 45 rating, meaning that nearly half the homes in the country were watching. It was the largest audience of an election debate in 16 years.

The first presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain in comparison got only a 3.1 6 rating.

Palin had the most to prove, analysts said. Recovering from a tough week in which she was pilloried by the national media and members of her own party for being unprepared in a recent series of interviews, Palin spoke with the confidence she brought to her earlier gubernatorial debates.

The instant reviews were favorable to both candidates, which was crucial for Palin who had the most at risk because the Republican ticket of Sen. John McCain and Palin has been sliding in the polls.

"She was astonishingly good," said Rob Dreher, a commentator from the Dallas Morning-News newspaper. He said Palin "ended up saving the campaign and saving her career. But did she turn the race around? I kind of doubt it."

Republican strategist Bay Buchanan praised Palin's "upbeat and positive" attitude and said she "knocked it out of the ballpark."

Dreher, however, wasn't charmed by Palin's folksy cheerfulness, telling "GMA" that he found "all that chirping, that 'you betcha,' that Sheriff Marge from 'Fargo' really did grate on me."

Donna Brazile, an ABC News consultant who served as Vice President Al Gore's campaign manager in 2000, was equally pleased with Biden's performance, telling "GMA" that the Delaware senator "gave one of the best performances of his life." Biden wisely avoided attacking Palin and the risk of looking like a bully, concentrating his fire on McCain instead, Brazile said.

"We were all watching, at least on the Republican side, for a train wreck, but it didn't happen," Dreher said.

But Palin's performance may not be enough for the Republican duo, as they lag in the polls and with McCain's decision Thursday to abandon efforts to win in the key battleground state of Michigan.

"The race is solidifying in a trajectory that doesn't work for them," said ABC News' chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos, referring to McCain and Palin.

"He has two debates to go. In those debates he has to open up a new line of attack, draw some blood on Barack Obama, create a new debate," Stephanopoulos said.

Despite the rave reviews for Palin, it was not all perfect. Twice, she referred to the U.S. commander Gen. David McKiernan as "General McClellan," who was a Civil War general.

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