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.
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.
But as telling as her gaffe was Biden's refusal to pounce. The Delaware senator had consulted this past week with several female Democrats to ensure he would not appear to come off as bullying or chauvinistic.
Though the debate opened with talk of the ongoing economic crisis, the most heated exchange centered on the war in Iraq, with Palin calling the Obama-Biden plan "a white flag of surrender" and Biden calling the plans of Palin, Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and President Bush "dead wrong."
"We will end this war," Biden said. "For John McCain, there is no end in sight to end this war. Fundamental difference."
Palin accused Democratic presidential-nominee Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., of voting against funding for U.S. troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and chastised Biden for defending the move, "especially with your son in the National Guard."
Both Biden and Palin have sons in the military on their way to serve in Iraq.
Biden countered by pointing to another Senate vote and claiming, "John McCain voted against funding for the troops."
Palin said unlike the Democratic ticket, she and McCain did not support a timeline for troop withdrawal, and would wait for imput from generals in the field before making the call to pull out troops.
"Your plan is a white flag of surrender in Iraq and that is not what our troops need to hear," Palin said. "We cannot afford to lose there, or we will be no better off in the war in Afghanistan either. We have got to win in Iraq."
Biden continued his attack.
"John McCain has been dead wrong ... on the fundamental issues relating to the conduct of the war," McCain said. "Barack Obama has been right. There are the facts."
One day after the Senate passed a controversial Wall Street bailout bill and on the eve of an expected re-vote on the bill in the House of Representatives, the economy took a central role in the debate.
Biden and Palin each placed blame for the ongoing economic crisis on the current administration and touted the plans of their running mates.
"The economic policies of the last eight years have been the worst economic policies we've ever had," Biden said during the first moments of the debate. "As a consequence, you've seen what's happened on Wall Street. If you need any more proof positive of how bad the economic theories have been -- this excessive deregulation, the failure to oversee what was going on, letting Wall Street run wild -- I don't think you needed any more evidence than what you see now."
He touted Obama's proposals to increase regulation and cut CEO golden parachutes.
Palin used the opportunity to try to bring the issue down to a "soccer mom's" point of view.
"Go to a kids' soccer game on Saturday and turn to any parent there on the sideline and ask them, 'How are you feeling about the economy?'" she said. "I'll bet you're going to hear some fear in that parent's voice, fear regarding the few investments that some of us have in the stock market. ... Fear about, how are we going to afford to send our kids to college? A fear, as small-business owners, perhaps, how we're going to borrow any money to increase inventory or hire more people."
Palin said McCain had sounded the alarm years ago on failed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but other lawmakers had ignored his warnings.
Biden reminded Palin that McCain's early words in the face of the current credit crisis were, "The fundamentals of the economy are strong."
"That doesn't make John McCain a bad guy," he added, "but it does point out he's out of touch."
However, Palin offered an explanation of McCain's much-maligned comments about the economic fundamentals.
"John McCain, in referring to the fundamental of our economy being strong, he was talking to and he was talking about the American workforce," she said. "And the American workforce is the greatest in this world, with the ingenuity and the work ethic that is just entrenched in our workforce. That's a positive. That's encouragement. And that's what John McCain meant."
Biden ridiculed the McCain-Palin tax plan as a measure that would help only the wealthiest corporations and individuals and pledged not to increase taxes on middle-class families who earn less than $200,000.
"Where I came from, it's called fairness," Biden said. "The middle class is struggling. Under McCain, 100,000 households get not a single break in taxes. When you [the middle class] do well, America does well. This is not punitive. McCain wants to add tax breaks for the corporations and wealthy. We have a different value set. The middle class deserves the tax breaks."
Palin said the health of the economy was contingent on allowing the private sector to grow on its own, free of a heavy tax burden.
"You said paying taxes is patriotic," she said. "You're not always the solution. Too often you are the problem. Get out of the way and let the private sector and families prosper."P>
With just two minutes to answer each of moderator Gwen Ifill's questions, the candidates covered a lot of ground quickly. Moving from the economy, Biden and Palin discussed climate change, same-sex marriage and foreign policy.
Though the candidates disagreed on the whether the United States should sit down with the leaders of rogue nations such Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, both trumpeted ongoing American support for the state of Israel.
Palin said she supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Bush administration's efforts to negotiate a settlement.
Biden touted his own pro-Israel credentials, ripped the Bush administration's efforts, and said he and Obama would push for proactive diplomatic engagement in the Middle East.
Palin, who has built much of her candidacy on her energy policy credentials, called for further drilling and use of domestic oil. She declined to place the blame for global warming squarely on human beings.
"I'm not one to attribute every activity of man to change in the climate," Palin said, arguing for more drilling of fossil fuels in the United States. "People are so hungry for those domestic sources of energy to be tapped into. It is safe to drill and we need to do more of that."
Biden sharply disagreed, saying he believed climate change was "man-made" and the nation needed to actively seek alternative energy sources.
"I think it's man-made," Biden said. "I think it's clearly man-made. If you don't understand the problem, then you don't understand the solution. His only idea is drill, drill, drill -- and in the meantime, we are going to be in real trouble."
On one issue, however, the candidates agreed. Both said they supported full civil rights for same-sex couples, but opposed redefining marriage to include them.