VP debate: Economy, defense take center stage in St. Louis

ST. LOUIS -- Vice presidential candidates Sarah Palin and Joe Biden sparred Thursday about economic policy, pursuit of the war in Iraq and the records of their party nominees in an eagerly anticipated debate that included humor, emotion and sharp elbows.

Heightening the suspense: sinking public confidence in Palin's readiness to take over as president if necessary and sharpened attacks on Biden's prior embarrassing mistakes.

Palin, the Alaska governor and running mate of Republican John McCain, and Biden, the Delaware senator and pick of Democrat Barack Obama, faced off in their only debate. It was the eighth matchup of vice presidential nominees since the first such meeting in 1976.

"The economic policies of the last eight years are the worst economic policy we've ever had," Biden said, setting the tone for the sharp exchanges on the records of McCain and Obama.

The debate — coming a day after the Senate overwhelmingly passed a $700 billion rescue package for Wall Street — quickly focused on the nation's financial meltdown. Palin praised McCain's call in 2006 for greater oversight of mortgage giant Fannie Mae and blamed "predatory lenders" for the financial fears of Americans. Biden placed the blame on the Bush administration and deregulation supported by McCain.

"Go to a soccer game on Saturday, turn to any parent on the sidelines and ask them how they feel about the economy," Palin said. "I bet ya you're going to hear some fear."

Biden and Palin — both with sons deployed to Iraq or about to be — clashed sharply on strategies for ending the war there. "We will end this war," he said of the Democrats' plan for withdrawing U.S. combat troops in 16 months. "For John McCain there is no end in sight. Fundamental difference. We will end this war."

"Your plan is a white flag of surrender in Iraq," Palin shot back.

Palin, whose abilities prior to the debate had been questioned even by fellow Republicans, defended her answers when pressed by moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS to stick to the topic. "I may not answer the questions the moderator wants to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record," she said.

The governor also made a point of emphasizing that she's a newcomer to national politics and used it to zing Biden, who was elected to the Senate in 1972.

"It's so obvious that I'm a Washington outsider," she said, challenging Biden for his stance on the Iraq war. "You're one who says as so many politicians do, I was for it before I was against it."

For his part, Biden deflected her criticism by attacking McCain as being "absolutely wrong from the outset" and tied the GOP presidential nominee repeatedly to what he considered failures of the Bush administration. "I never supported John McCain's strategies on the war," he said. "John McCain was lockstep with (Vice President) Dick Cheney … on how this was going to be easy."

In an Associated Press/GfK poll out Thursday, just 25% of likely voters think Palin is qualified to president, a drop from 41% last month.

Before the debate, the McCain campaign released a video showing Biden's slip-ups, including telling a questioner he "probably had a higher IQ than you."

Pre-debate moves

Leading into the debate, the powerful boost McCain got from choosing Palin as his running mate was fading fast, and they looked to the debate at Washington University in St. Louis as a chance to restore some of that luster.

The McCain camp made a critical move before the debate Wednesday, announcing that it was pulling staff and advertising out of the economically distressed state of Michigan.

One McCain adviser said it was "off the list." The GOP nominee also canceled a visit slated for next week. Michigan, with 17 electoral votes, voted for Democrat John Kerry in 2004, but Republicans had poured money into an effort to try to place it in their column this year.

The move signals a major retreat as McCain struggles to regain his footing in a campaign increasingly dominated by economic issues.

Palin got some unsettling pre-debate news, as well. Less than an hour before she stepped onstage, a state judge in Alaska threw out a lawsuit filed by Republicans seeking to stop an abuse-of-power investigation aimed at the governor.

Contributing: Todd Spangler, Detroit Free Press; Associated Press