From Plouffe's Lips to Your Ears: Tonight's Spin ... Today!

Joe Biden and wife Jill arrive in St. Louis

ST. LOUIS--If you've never seen a presidential campaign manager hold an "availability" with a gaggle of national political reporters--they call it an "avail" for short--then you should ... well, consider yourself blessed. Basically, the campaign manager meanders toward the hacks; the hacks swarm like a flock of hornets, waving their tiny digital recorders in the air and shouting questions; and the campaign manager spews out answers as if he were an incredibly unconvincing automaton sent back from the future with nothing but inane talking points installed in his neural-net processor. It's riveting.

I mention this because on the flight this afternoon from Wilmington, Del., to St. Louis, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe--a boyish, buzzcut fellow who smiles inexplicably after every sentence, giving him the air of someone who's perpetually pleased with himself--sauntered back to the press section of the cabin and held a pre-debate avail. Nothing he said resembled normal human speech in the slightest. But what Plouffe's answers did reveal is how Team Obama plans to spin tonight's event. Because when it comes to presidential debates, it doesn't matter what actually happens on stage--the campaigns already know what they're going to say about it. (This goes for Team McCain as well, which has gotten itself in a ridiculous snit over the selection of Gwen Ifil as moderator.) Here's what I heard from my front-row seat:

If Palin does well tonight, Plouffe and Co. will simply dismiss her performance as an entertaining sideshow, claiming that voters want something more serious from their leaders. "I'm sure this will be a very entertaining debate tonight," he said. "We expect that she'll have very witty, biting lines that she'll get off, and all of you who are like figure-skating judges will give her some credit for that. But we think that the American people who are watching at home tonight, who are thinking of their challenges and fundamentally unhappy with the direction of the country ... We think that Joe Biden will do a very good job of speaking to them. Tonight's important, but so is [the presidential debates scheduled for] next Tuesday and Oct. 15." In fact, you're almost certain to hear Plouffe recycle his dismissive "witty and biting" assessment if Palin throws a few good jabs--he repeated it three times over the course of our 10-minute conversation.

Team Obama also has a defense ready if Biden unleashes one of his famous gaffes: call it an example of his plainspoken honesty, then quickly shift the spotlight to McCain's policies. "Joe Biden's just going to talk about what's in his heart," Plouffe said. "He's just an honest person, a plainspoken person. I'm sure there will be a gaffe watch tonight. But the gaffes that matter are what George Bush has done to the country and what John McCain wants to do." Also watch for the Obama folks to criticize McCain--more in sorrow than in anger--for engaging in behavior as "small" as latching onto a slip on the tongue: "Listen, this a big-stakes election and they keep trying to take it small. Tactics that the McCain campaign is engaged in at the end of the day do their campaign a disservice. I believe that with all of my heart."

And what, you ask, if it's Palin who makes a mistake? Expect Team Obama to link her error to the narrative they've been trying to attach to McCain for the past few weeks: that he's unreliable and even "erratic." As Plouffe put it on the plane, "we've had a consistent, relentless focus on the middle class. We think consistency matters in politics. There's been an erraticness in the McCain campaign over the last 10 days that I think has puzzled voters. So we'll see what [Governor] Palin does tonight."

Finally, don't be surprised if Chicago does a little gloating--assuming Biden emerges unscathed. In typical "expectations game" mode, Plouffe at first told us that Palin was an "extremely good debater." He then upped his assessment to "a great debater" who "won each debate [in Alaska] convincingly." By the end of the avail, he was heralding Palin as "one of the best debaters in American politics." At that, reporters started to laugh. "No really, she is!" countered Plouffe. If Biden somehow manages to vanquish one of the most formidable orators in the history of humankind tonight, Plouffe will surely want to boast about it, right?

Not that I'd expect the American people to take him any more seriously than we did.