John McCain’s campaign aches needed a tonic.
On a day when he abandoned the fight with rival Barack Obama in one battleground state and national polls showed him trailing overall, running mate Sarah Palin put on a debate performance that soothed the pain.
Going up against Democratic running mate Joe Biden, the Alaska governor offered reassurance to Republicans and conservatives unnerved by her lack of national experience and her faltering conduct in two recent TV network interviews.
She winked and smiled and shrugged through a litany of grievances against Obama on taxes, the war in Iraq and energy. She jotted down notes, glancing at them from behind her lectern as she checked off the points of her replies. And she made a case to the middle class, offering a populist answer to the cause of the current housing crisis.
“Darn right it was the predator lenders, who tried to talk Americans into thinking that it was smart to buy a $300,000 house if we could only afford a $100,000 house,” she said.
But even as Palin reversed some of the harm she had caused herself, Biden was meeting his own tasks as well. Time and again, the veteran Delaware senator tied McCain to unpopular President Bush and managed to connect with the audience on a personal level as much as he did on policy points.
Disciplined, he defended Obama from attacks, but refused to engage Palin in a tit-for-tat exchange.
By the end of the night, a CNN poll found that a majority of debate watchers believed Biden had won, as did a CBS poll of undecided voters.
Earlier in the day, the McCain campaign was forced to concede that it was stopping its advertising and scaling back staff in Michigan, a crucial state in the race. Palin, winner or not, simply helped by not hurting McCain any further.
“Her performance had unlimited downside potential but probably has a limited upside,” said Todd Harris, who worked on McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign and advised Fred Thompson’s presidential bid this year. “I doubt that this will change the dynamics of the race, but it certainly might help stop some of the bleeding.”
Compared to the fairly stoic, policy driven presidential debate last week, this encounter was a duel of personalities. Where Obama is cool and reserved, Biden can be emotional and bombastic. And where McCain debated firmly but dispassionately, Palin wielded her attack lines almost cheerfully.
The debate showcased two sides of Biden — the master senator invoking long gone colleagues such as Mike Mansfield and Jesse Helms and rattling off foreign policy details with ease, and the “just Joe” image he has tried to cultivate on his daily train commute between Washington and Wilmington, Del.
Biden, in a moment of common ground with McCain and Palin, spoke of parents who send their children to fight wars.
Beau Biden, the Delaware attorney general, is scheduled to fly to Iraq with his National Guard unit soon. Biden plans to attend his deployment ceremony Friday in Delaware. Palin’s son Track, 19, is also deploying for service in Iraq.
McCain’s son Jimmy, a Marine, returned earlier this year from Iraq. Another son, Jack, is a senior at the U.S. Naval Academy.
And both Biden and Palin sought to appeal to independent and undecided voters by speaking the language of middle America, though both have long stopped leading average middle-class lives.
“I don’t think either one of them was going to concede that the other had more middle-class roots,” said Bill Carrick, a California Democratic consultant and veteran of past presidential campaigns.
Biden acknowledged he is now better off than “almost all Americans.” But he sought to connect directly with his audience as a father, in an emotional, voice-breaking allusion to the deaths of his wife and young daughter in a 1972 traffic accident that left both his sons critically injured.
“I get a good salary with the United States Senate. I live in a beautiful house that’s my total investment that I have. So I — I am much better off now,” he said. “But the notion that somehow, because I’m a man, I don’t know what it’s like to raise two kids alone, I don’t know what it’s like to have a child you’re not sure is going to — is going to make it — I understand.”
And Palin, a self-described hockey mom, was speaking of another mom cohort when she said: “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.”’
The debate format suited both candidates’ styles. Confined to 90-second responses, Biden’s tendency to overspeak was held in check. Palin also seemed to find comfort in the time limits which allowed her to make her points succinctly on less familiar ground and to use the two-minute rebuttal period to occasionally expand on a previous point.
“I would like to respond about the tax increases,” she said when the topic turned to subprime mortgages. “I want to go back to the energy plan,” she said at another point, sidestepping another discussion of taxes.
Given Palin’s performance, the debate begged one last question: What does Tina Fey do now?