Expectations for the debate could not have been lower for Sarah Palin. The last of the Katie Couric interviews last night showed her at a loss to describe any U.S. Supreme Court case other than Roe v. Wade with which she disagreed. That set off a new round of finger-pointing and guffaws among the MSM.
And they have not been alone. For some time conservatives have been glum, if not despondent, about Palin’s abilities. Questions remained whether she was up for the job or merely had been “freaked out” by poor handling by the McCain team.
The day had been another roller-coaster for the McCain camp. John McCain finally raised concern earlier in the day about Gwen Ifill’s upcoming “favorable” (actually laudatory) book about Barack Obama and the potential conflict of interest. Then the McCain camp projected an air of bravado — Palin would be going on the attack. That was just before word filtered out, later confirmed by a media conference call, that the McCain campaign was “pulling back” in Michigan and faced a “shrinking” electoral map.
So all eyes were trained on the debate. The question going into the contest tonight was simple: Would this be the final blow to a teetering McCain campaign or the beginning of a comeback? It seems that Republicans’ fears were overblown.
It may not have been enough to recalibrate the race, but it certainly was enough to revive her reputation. She was alternately charming, biting, and lawyerly in marshaling her arguments. She chided Biden for looking backward and harping on the Bush adminstration. She zinged him and Barack Obama for giving up on the surge. She came back with specifics on Afghanistan and dinged Obama for voting for oil breaks in the Bush-Cheney energy bill.
In short, she entirely and completely beat the spread. Her performance, given how poorly she has fared recently, was nothing short of stunning. And Biden knew it.
As for him he alternately smirked and grimaced. In general, he seemed peeved and annoyed. As his voice rose and the minutiae spewed forth he seemed to forget that he was in a debate in front of real people rather than Senate colleagues. He did have a real and compelling moment: when he choked up in recollecting the fear of worrying that his son might not survive the car accident which claimed his wife’s life.
As Brit Hume said, there certainly were no “deer in the headlights” moments for Palin. From Morton Kondracke: “I think she was feisty, informal, she referred a lot to her own life … she was forceful and she was knowledgeable. She did not make a single mistake.” As Bill Kristol noted, conservatives were “extremely happy” and she “utterly held her own.” Alex Castellanos on CNN said, “Overall this was a rough week … but tonight you saw Main Street and not Wall Street.”
Frank Luntz’s focus group overwhelmingly voted for Palin. The comments would warm the hearts of the McCain camp: “She spoke to the American people.” “She was Mainstreet America.” “I was expecting her to lose it,” confided one who then went on to praise her to the hilt. Luntz predicted a shift in the polling data. That remains to be seen.
Rick Klein from ABC’s The Note seemed to hit the nail on the head: “Nearly halfway in — where has this Sarah Palin been? She’s articulate, quick, detail-oriented tonight. Sometimes less is more.” Even liberal analysts like Marc Ambinder seemed impressed. He blogged, “Palin is adept at keeping Biden on the offensive. … She answers (or doesn’t answer) the question asked of her in a sentence and then shifts to a talking point against Obama.”
So those planning the McCain campaign funeral will have to put their plans on hold. For a campaign badly in need of a jump start they got one. In a big way. The MSM couldn’t have played their part better — beating her down, lowering expectations, and then seeing each of the tags (e.g., unsophisticated, ill-informed, clueless) upended one by one. Time will tell whether it was enough to change the race, but it was a step in the right direction for a ticket badly lacking in momentum.