The Tale of Two Debates

First things first: they both survived.

For accuracy's sake, though, we should probably consider referring to tonight's "Showdown in St. Louis" as the "Showdowns in St. Louis." It was the Tale of Two Debates. In one ring we watched Sarah Palin battling Tina Fey's impression of Sarah Palin. In the other we saw Joe Biden jousting with John McCain. They both delivered somewhat uneven performances--but both "won" their individual bouts. The question is which one moved his or her boss closer to victory on Nov. 4.

Palin's plan was simple: deliver your talking points and pivot to an attack on Barack Obama--regardless of what moderator Gwen Ifill asks. The results of this strategy were mixed. For one thing, Palin's frequent attempts to bait Biden into making one of his famous "gaffes" or saying something "condescending"--she repeatedly sought to provoke his ire by pointing out issues (i.e., Iraq war funding, experience) on which he and Obama have parted ways in the past--did not succeed. Not only did Biden resist the temptation to pull a Lazio and charge her podium, but he delivered crisp, clear ripostes that began with the words "that charge is not true" instead of, say, "Governor Palin is lying." Biden was so focused on being polite, in fact, that the one time he said "Sarah," he immediately reverted to "Governor." That said, Palin did manage to keep her rival on the defensive--especially on raising taxes--for substantial stretches of the debate. That's always a plus.

Palin was her strongest, though, when transitioning from the topic at hand to a folksy, emotive talking point--an attempt, as she put it, "to talk straight to the American people and let 'em know my track record" regardless of what "[Biden] or the moderator want to hear." When Ifill tried to steer the conversation to Capitol Hill, for example--did we see the "worst of Washington or the best of Washington... play out" in recent Congressional jockeying over the bailout bill?--Palin detoured to the soccer field: "You know, I think a good barometer here... is to go to a kid's soccer game on Saturday, and turn to any parent there on the sideline and ask them, 'How are you feeling about the economy?' And I'll bet you, you're going to hear some fear in that parent's voice." To practiced ears, "soccer" sounded like a line that Palin had memorized and repeated. But for voters who'd only seen her fumbling through the Katie Couric interviews--or had only seen SNL satirizing her fumbles--Palin sounded clear enough, compelling enough and common-sensical enough to come across as a competent public figure (as opposed to a caricature of incompetence). Throughout the debate, she reverted to this mode again and again, mentioning her "Joe Six-Pack" roots in "Middle America" one minute and admitting that it was time to stop "fingerpointing" and move past Bush's "blunders" the next. It was the main reason she "exceeded expectations."

The problem for Palin, however, was that she often seemed to run out of (or simply spew out) talking points--at which point her answers would disintegrate into the confusing "blizzards of words" that Charlie Gibson recently endured. Asked about the causes of climate change, for example, the Alaskan seemed unable to muster an intelligible response. "I'm not one to attribute every man--activity of man to the changes in the climate," she said. "There is something to be said also for man's activities, but also for the cyclical temperature changes on our planet.... What I want to argue about is, how are we going to get there to positively affect the impacts?" Asked what circumstances would force her to deploy America’s nuclear weaponry, Palin chose to answer a different question. “Nuclear weaponry, of course, would be the be-all, end-all of just too many people in too many parts of our planet," she said. "So those dangerous regimes, again, cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, period.” And her riff on Israel was similarly scrambled:

A two-state solution is the solution. And Secretary Rice, having recently met with leaders on one side or the other there, also, still in these waning days of the Bush administration, trying to forge that peace, and that needs to be done, and that will be top of an agenda item, also, under a McCain-Palin administration. Israel is our strongest and best ally in the Middle East. We have got to assure them that we will never allow a second Holocaust, despite, again, warnings from Iran and any other country that would seek to destroy Israel, that that is what they would like to see. 

There was an argument in there somewhere. But it was buried amid a pile-up of talking points.

This isn't to say Palin bombed. Far from it. Over the course of 90 minutes, she sounded smart, savvy and spunky enough, often enough, to seem to belong on stage--and to give commentators the grist they needed to call it a comeback. (That's why she's better suited to debates than network interviews: no filter, plenty of time.) But there were simply too many of these "huh?" moments--especially near the end of the event--to convince the 60 percent of voters who told ABC News this week that Palin is unprepared for the presidency that they're mistaken. Her trajectory tonight mirrored her trajectory since St. Paul--solid at the start, shakier over time. In St. Louis, Palin proved she can be an able communicator--and prevented herself from becoming a perpetual punchline. But I doubt that she convinced many skeptical swing voters that she's qualified to lead the free world.

This readiness deficit redounds to Biden's--and by extension Obama's--benefit. Biden didn't have a perfect night. His performance seemed to veer from muted to blustery, and it took him half an hour to find his footing. But he never seemed arrogant, condescending or chauvinistic. He never blathered on endlessly. And he certainly never put his foot in his mouth. More importantly, Biden did what he came to do--make a clear case against John McCain. And he did it with answers that were more detailed, less rhetorical and far more responsive to the questions than Palin's. You may disagree with his arguments. Many will. But it's impossible to say he wasn't polite, persuasive and well-informed. In fact, he even out-emoted Palin, silently fighting back tears while recalling his son’s near-death after the horrific car accident that killed his wife and daughter in 1972. People are "looking for help," he said, choking up. "They're not looking for more of the same."

Ultimately, partisans will ignore the errors and find much to cheer in each candidate's performance. But when it comes to the all-important swing voters, Biden may have the edge. Unlike pundits, undecideds don't come equipped with unique, finely-calibrated expectations for each candidate. Unlike partisans, they're not preconditioned to support the politician who flatters their ideological biases. They're just looking for the most plausible president--or in this case, vice president. Palin delivered an appealing performance. But I suspect that undecideds will see Biden as more vice-presidential.

So far, the surveys seem to support my hunch. CNN's quick-release poll gave the debate to the Delaware senator, 51 percent to 36 percent, and 46 percent of undecided voters surveyed by CBS News agreed (21 percent thought Palin won). Palin's problem wasn't likability: 54 percent of CNN respondents picked Palin in that category; only 36 percent chose Biden. It was preparedness. In fact, the debate didn't move Palin's readiness meter one iota: 54 percent of voters said she wasn't qualified to be president before the debate, and 53 percent said the same thing afterwards. Are these stats the final say? Hardly. But even if the voters ultimately decide that the Showdowns in St. Louis were a draw, there's no chance that they'll prove impactful enough to alter the basic contours of the race. Right now, Obama leads by an average of six points and has broken 50 percent in several polls--with only 33 days to go. For McCain, a tie won't do the trick.

In other words, survival is all well and good. But it's not the same thing as winning.

UPDATE, Oct. 3: For an analysis of each candidate's factual missteps, click here.