Sarah 'Barracuda' Clutch Under Pressure

It was the bold Sarah Palin of the Republican convention who appeared last night for her debate with Joe Biden, not the shaky Palin of the Gibson and Couric interviews. But until a few minutes into the evening, it wasn’t clear which Palin would show up.

Those who detested Palin before were highly unlikely to be won over by her debate performance, although McCain supporters breathed a huge sigh of relief. But both groups were in agreement that she did “better than expected.”

The same had been true the night she stepped onto the stage of the convention and began to speak. But the Gibson and Couric interviews had demoralized even Palin’s staunchest supporters, who were puzzled by her lackluster performance and meandering syntax.

Some of the difference between the Sarah of the convention/debates and the Sarah of the interviews was the result of the interviewers’ “gotcha” questions, hostile demeanor, sometime use of unflattering camera angles, and editing designed to accentuate the impression of incoherence. But not all of it. There seemed to be something about those venues that made Palin unaccountably nervous and unusually garbled. In contrast, there was something about the circumstances of her speech before the convention and the debate with Biden that focused her energy and her mind.

Most people would probably find a live one-on-one debate against a seasoned opponent, held in front of a large auditorium crowd and a TV audience of many millions, far more stressful than a pre-recorded interview with a journalist. But Palin is not most people.

This is all the more remarkable because, unlike so many politicians, Palin is not a lawyer. Biden is, and so it stands to reason that he might feel far more comfortable with the type of thinking and argument required for a debate, and that Palin might be better in an interview.

But Palin is nothing if not a driving competitor. Those who like to mock her often hark back to her beauty contest days. But that was a brief endeavor compared to the venue in which she repeatedly honed her skills: basketball. Palin’s claim to fame in her school and college days was that she was an athlete.