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VP Debate Preview: Will Biden Gaffe? Will Palin Be Set Free?

Everyone from Bill Kristol to Mitt Romney to Byron York has advice for the McCain camp: free Sarah Palin.

The wisdom — or is it hope — circulating among savvy conservatives is that she has been hampered by too little access and too little practice in mixing it up with the media. The MSM and liberal pundits have a different take: she is unprepared and dim-witted, so there was good reason to hide her from the press. (Meanwhile, John McCain, in a joint interview with Palin, told Katie Couric it was “gotcha” journalism which made Palin appear out of her league.)

At the VP debate on Thursday night we will find out which is more accurate: was she a brilliant choice incompetently managed, or an awful selection which now has come back to haunt John McCain?

The McCain team is in need of a lift. McCain is clearly behind and could use a conversation changer and a shift of momentum which a surprising performance by Palin might provide. What could she do to turn around her own fortunes and that of her ticket? Several things would help.

First, she needs to take it to her opponent on what is supposed to be Joe Biden’s greatest strength: foreign policy. She’s no Henry Kissinger but she can remind viewers that Biden championed the unworkable Iraq partition idea and opposed the surge. But it is in Biden’s criticism of Barack Obama that she might really score points. Biden after all inveighed against Obama’s vote to cut off funding for the troops in Iraq and was critical of his promise to meet unconditionally with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Between Biden and Obama they have supported just about every bad national security idea (e.g., opposition to Kyl-Lieberman, endless talks with Iran, opposition to FISA) in the last eight years. Palin can make that point.

Second, she should use Biden’s “higher taxes are patriotic” to do what McCain didn’t do enough of in his own debate: hone in on the dangers of a tax increase during a recession and suggest that if Obama is really bent on all that domestic spending many more people than the “rich” will get a tax hike. Why, with the Fed and Treasury madly trying to pump liquidity into the private sector, would Obama suck it back out with a tax hike? It’s illogical and bad economics.

Third, she needs to pin the “insider” label back on the Obama-Biden ticket. There are plenty of earmarks to point to — both by Biden and by Obama (nearly a billion in just the few years he has been there). But the real looming issue is why neither of them set about blowing the whistle on the Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae fiasco in the making. It was the Obama-Biden duo and their Democratic allies who took gobs of money from Freddie and Fannie and then blocked any meaningful reform. If all else fails, Palin should give viewers directions to view this film detailing the willful indifference, and indeed obstructionism, of the Democrats. Or she can quote Bill Clinton for the proposition that the Democrats have a lot to answer for. In short, she needs to use the platform of the debate to tie the Obama-Biden ticket to their Congressional colleagues and, in turn, to the debacle of Congressional mismanagement and malfeasance.

Fourth, she can talk with authority on energy policy. Why do the Democrats oppose domestic drilling and why aren’t we developing resources at home rather than importing oil, which for the foreseeable future will be a vital part of our energy supply? And yes, it is probably a good idea to bring up that clean coal gaffe.

And, finally, on a stylistic level Palin needs to get into the weeds and show some familiarity, not just with catchphrases, but with the particulars of McCain’s own program. As for her lack of foreign policy experience, she should be frank: all she has to offer is judgment, belief in a foreign policy based on the principles enunciated by Ronald Reagan, and a determination to take whatever measures are needed to prevail in the war on terror. (She might even use her newness to the national scene to her advantage: “I’m new at this Joe but I fail to see why Osama bin Laden should be given habeas corpus rights when not even the Nazis at Nuremberg got those protections.”)

What about Joe Biden?

Hard as it might be for him, he must know that the debate is not about him. It is about being invisible — leaving no YouTube moment, no hint of condescension, and no whiff of obnoxious know-it-all-ism that might stir the pot. His team is ahead, and he needs to do no more than succinctly restate his running mate’s position and bat away whatever incoming fire Palin sends his way.

As for his own criticism of Obama — whether on Iraq or Pakistan — he should be modest: the voters didn’t buy his criticism then and now Obama is running the show. And if he has made gaffes well, that just shows he is like every American who wished he hadn’t said something at the wrong time, in the wrong place. In other words, defy expectations by deflating his own ego.

The danger for Biden: if Palin does mount an attack on the Obama/Congressional connection (or, worse still, on the Chicago-Bill Ayers treasure trove) he has to provide a compelling defense other than “oh, that’s a lot of garbage.” The Stanley Kurtz research is making its way through the news food chain and if Biden misses an opportunity to bat it down firmly and with some specific data it will only grow.

As the debate drew near, a new source of controversy swirled: was moderator Gwen Ifill an impartial choice or did her upcoming book celebrating the rise of a new generation of African-American politicians suggest a conflict of interest? At times it seems the McCain camp can never catch a break — or find an unbiased member of the MSM. The reality is that VP debates don’t matter all that much.

The “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” moment in the debate between vice presidential candidates Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen was memorable but not relevant to the 1988 presidential race. And in the midst of the greatest political and financial crisis of confidence in a generation, the VP debate suddenly seems like small potatoes. Nevertheless, in a race in which just about anything that can happen has, Thursday night’s face-off will be gripping — and holds the potential to recalibrate the race, albeit marginally and temporarily.