Fineman: Advice for Palin and Biden

Vice presidential debates, like vice presidents, used to be low voltage. Now they are prime time, big time. Why? Two words: Dick Cheney. In 2000 and 2004, his debate performances (he played the calm, well-informed dinner guest) helped elect and re-elect Bush. In the White House, the vice's clout has been both unrivaled and reviled. Now comes Sarah Palin, Wonder Woman of Wasilla. This Thursday a huge audience is expected to watch her only major public test, a 90-minute bout with Joe Biden, a loquacious 35-year veteran of the Senate. How should Palin and Biden handle the momentous moment? I asked two world-class corner men: Democrat Bob Shrum, who prepped John Kerry in 2004, and Republican Stuart Stevens, who advised Cheney. All told, the two strategists have worked on 15 presidential or vice presidential debates. Excerpts:

Shrum on Biden: "You don't ever assume your guy knows enough, but in Joe's case, the problem is that he knows so much. You want to work carefully on honing his answers in practice sessions. It's four steps: an assertion, two supporting points and then the finish. Biden also should have a good feel in advance for Palin's answers. She's so new to all this that they have given her a set of lines: 'Surge is working,' 'John McCain is a maverick.' You practice the comebacks.

"Biden needs to be ready for two Sarah Palins: the smiling one and the attacking one. Actually, she is pretty good at doing both at the same time. Joe should not go after her at all, but only after McCain. And while he is doing it, Joe cannot adopt a posture of being aggressive toward her or, worse, condescending. He attacks McCain only on the economy—the GOP ticket's weakest spot. As he does so, Biden talks about his blue-collar background.

"She is going to attack Obama, and he has to defend him. Joe has to be the voice of authority: 'I know what it will take to be a good commander in chief, and I have seen with my own eyes that Barack can handle the job.' Joe has to be a character witness."

Stevens on Palin: "She should be very aggressive, but primarily toward Obama. She should try to drive a wedge into the Democratic ticket by playing back Biden's own critical, dismissive words about Obama from the primary season.

"She would not be well served going after snarky debating points. Voters know she can tweak Obama with her gleeful combativeness. That kind of thing plays better to Republican audiences than to a national one. She shouldn't be delivering lines to the faithful.

"In a vice presidential debate, you define the job and then try to convince people that you fit the definition. Cheney did that his own way—a heavy-lifting job for a serious guy—but the Palin model is different. She should define the job as a constant economic reality check. The card she has underplayed so far is the personal, economic-realism one. She can say, 'I understand your family's stress because I have lived it with a husband who works hard and five kids of our own. We know what life is like when you are at the mercy of economic forces you cannot control. That is what happened to us in our commercial fishing business. Cost of fuel went up, the price of the catch went down.' If you're Palin, what you have to do in a debate is write in your head what you want the wire-service newspaper lead to be. Her goal should be to not make news. And that means when Biden attacks, or the moderator's questions are detailed, she should not respond at length. Instead, she should focus on her personality. She should want that lead to be: Palin came across as a likable, caring person who believes what she says."

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