Analysis: Palin, Biden avoid debate pitfalls

It was a debate that started with high stakes and low expectations.

The pre-game chatter held that the only televised encounter between Sarah Palin, who has stumbled in recent interviews, and the loquacious Joe Biden, prone to gaffes, could well turn out to be a train wreck.

Instead, the two vice presidential candidates delivered a fierce, fast-talking back-and-forth with tougher criticism than the presidential contenders traded in their first debate last week. Palin chided Biden but reserved her harshest words for Barack Obama, calling him "downright dangerous" for being open to meeting with rogue leaders and "reckless, reckless" in criticizing U.S. incidents in Afghanistan.

Biden rarely focused on Palin — he did make a passing reference to Alaska's notorious "Bridge to Nowhere" — and instead targeted McCain as "out of touch" with the economic concerns of middle-class Americans and offering no significant change from Bush administration policies that have led to stalemate in the Middle East and five years of war in Iraq.

The charges and countercharges over war and taxes, diplomacy and climate change trod mostly on familiar ground. Both candidates exuded confidence and determination — a victory of sorts for Palin, the first-term Alaska governor performing on equal terms with the six-term Delaware senator. Neither made a major obvious gaffe, and both spoke so quickly and relentlessly that the encounter surely scored a record word count in the annals of national debates.

Palin smiled at the camera, winked at the audience and offered a "shout-out" to her brother's third-grade class at Gladys Wood Elementary School. She called herself a "Washington outsider" who was "not used to the way you guys operate," making it clear she saw that as a positive thing.

Biden was more serious and senatorial, focused on policy questions he repeatedly referred to as "fundamental." Toward the end of the debate, his voice caught with emotion as he referred to his time as a single parent after his wife and daughter had been killed in a car accident. "The notion that, somehow, because I'm a man I don't know what it's like to raise two kids alone" is wrong, he said. He cited his hometown roots in Scranton, Pa., and Wilmington, Del., saying he had spent "a lot of time" at Home Depot.

More often, though, Biden turned nearly every question to blast McCain as misguided and tie him to the policies of President Bush, whose job-approval rating dropped to a record-low 27% in the most recent USA TODAY/Gallup Poll.

"Say it ain't so, Joe," Palin responded. "There you go again, pointing backwards." Acknowledging there had been "huge blunders" by the Bush administration, she said, "We'll learn from the mistakes of this administration" and said "change is coming" with McCain.

Palin's self-confidence and aw-shucks manner was a return to the persona that electrified the Republican National Convention when she delivered her acceptance speech four weeks ago. In that time, she has drawn large and enthusiastic crowds and prompted a fundraising surge — the GOP reports a record $66 million raised in September — but her meandering, generic answers in the handful of interviews she has done has made her the target of late-night comics.

In an ABC-Washington Post poll released Thursday, six in 10 Americans said Palin lacked the experience to be an effective president; a third of those surveyed said they were less likely to vote for McCain because of her.

At times, she didn't answer the questions posed by moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS, including when she was asked to discuss a personal shortcoming. Instead, she used queries as a jumping-off point to portray McCain as a "consummate maverick" and someone who has defied party orthodoxy and his own political interests to "put country first."

Still, she never seemed uncertain. And neither candidate ever said, "I don't know."

Palin and Biden had never met in person before the debate, though Biden phoned her with congratulations when McCain picked her as his running mate. "Hey, can I call you Joe?" she asked as they shook hands after meeting at the midpoint of the stage before the debate started.

Nearly 90 minutes later, they offered dramatically different job descriptions when asked what role they saw for themselves as vice president.

Palin ticked off three specific policy areas: government reform, energy independence and families with special-needs children. Biden said he would "be in the room when every major decision is made."