Here’s what to watch for in tonight’s showdown

Will Gov. Sarah Palin recover from several difficult television interviews and hit the right notes? Will Sen. Joe Biden demonstrate his considerable expertise in a concise and compelling way, or will he ramble? Will not making a mistake be perceived as success?

The stakes are high in tonight’s one and only vice presidential debate. A large audience is expected when PBS correspondent Gwen Ifill begins the debate at 8 p.m. in St. Louis. MinnPost asked four local professors to set the stage for tonight’s debate:

Angela High-Pippert

associate professor of political science and director of women’s studies, University of St. Thomas

What Palin should do: When you contrast her performance at the convention with tightly controlled media settings, she does better behind a podium. People who expect her to fall flat on her face will be surprised. She will hold her own. She will surprise some and not others.

She delivers a message very well. The debate format will suit her style. She has good body language, a masculine way of speaking, sarcastic but with a smile. These are certain advantages that are not highlighted in an interview. In a debate, it is all about the talking points. Being prepped is an advantage, as opposed to an interview where you have to have more to say. In a debate, you have to go by the clock.

What Biden should do: With the structure of the debate, Biden’s tendency to trip on his tongue is less likely to be a problem. He should direct comments to Ifill and not Palin and not point out that anyone is naïve, like Sen. McCain did. He should just pass on anything like that and talk about his own level of experience. Biden won’t have that difficult a time. He’s very experienced, and he probably gets a pass on being long-winded. He should speak about policy.

Overview: People will be watching to see how she does. If it seems like a non-event, then she will be seen as winning it if nothing out of the ordinary happens. The stakes are pretty low on a vice presidential debate, although this year is somewhat different. The attention is greater this year. There is reason to expect more people will watch the debate. “Saturday Night Live” (where Tina Fey has been playing Sarah Palin) may help fuel interest in the debate by people who might not normally watch.

Kathryn Pearson

assistant professor of political science, University of Minnesota, and MinnPost contributing writer

What Palin should do: “She has to play up her selling points, convincing voters she understands what they’re going through, their concerns about the economy. She has to play up her strengths as a reformer and maverick as well. She has to do a better job than she has of convincing undecided voters that she knows enough about the most important issues of day, the economy and foreign policy. She doesn’t have to prove she’s a policy wonk. After her speech at the Republican convention, I would have said she could have done that. But the interviews she’s done with Katie Couric  [on CBS] call that into question.”

What Biden should do:
The stakes for Biden are high as well, not because he has to prove he’s a policy expert. The challenges for him are about self-presentation, relating to voters and not making any missteps in way he questions Gov. Palin.  Among undecided voters, particularly women, if he came across as dismissive or overly confrontational, that would backfire.

Overview: If she holds her own and answers questions in a way that demonstrates some knowledge of issues and ability to connect with voters, that will go a long way in connecting to undecided voters. Biden is an experienced debater, so it is reasonable to expect that he will do far better. However, people watching will expect him to do better. This debate is particularly consequential. The audience, and particularly undecided voters, will be watching, and there will be more questions about her ability to be vice president than there usually are.

Adrienne Christiansen

associate professor of political science, Macalester College

What Palin should do: The challenges for her are enormous. She’s had several very bad interviews. She has become a bad joke, in many ways a laughing stock — on “Saturday Night Live.” The challenge for her is to be bright and informed and responsive enough not just to overcome the very low hurdle of expectations, but she needs to do a lot to rebuild her credibility. Because of McCain’s age, we’re really not looking at her as a vice president, but does she have the experience and mettle to be president of the United States?

The campaign is not letting her face a host of reporters. They’re putting her in one-on-one interviews, and that is not succeeding.  She’s not doing well.  Fundamentally, the challenge is enormous for her. She needs to reassure America that she has the requisite political savvy and understanding to be president. She comes off quite aggressively in a scripted speech. She has a kind of joy and confidence. She relishes that role, taking swipes at Obama in a way McCain can’t do.

What Biden should do:
There is a danger of him being condescending. Her answers in interviews were just gibberish. What he risks is hearing her give a nonsensical answer and pointing that out. That’s where he risks coming across as condescending. He has to be careful how he refutes her.

Presidential and vice presidential debates are about impression management. Because of his knowledge and career, Biden risks coming across as the confident Washington insider who knows better than us common folks. That is the image she likes to play against. Rather than seeing experience as anything valuable, she will dismiss that with her disdain. She will play that just “plain folks” part.

I predict more people will watch this than any of the presidential debates. Her celebrity, her newness  —  people want to know who she is and find out information about her. They have concerns about McCain’s age and medical records. She is only the second woman to be a vice presidential candidate. She has novelty and celebrity. There is a sizable section of the populace rooting for her because the campaign has done a good job of characterizing her as just a normal American with common sense.

John F. Cragan

Distinguished Service Professor in communication and journalism, University of St. Thomas

What Palin should do: The Republicans are obviously trying to lower expectations and create an environment in which the press appears to be ganging up on their grass-roots candidate.  The latest tactic is the impeachment of Gwen Ifill because of a book she has written in which she discusses Obama among other African-American politicians.  They also successfully reduced the governor’s exposure to candidate exchanges which would be high-risk for an inexperienced politician. 

What Biden should do:
The Democrats are also forming a safety net for Senator Biden by their constant reference to his tendency to over-answer a question to the point to where his first answer was good, his second answer was OK, but his third answer was overstated.  In addition, the Democrats point out that Senator Biden tends to be more direct in his confrontation with debate opponents and can often engage in ad hominem arguments.  My opinion is that the best Senator Biden can do is to do no harm.

Overview: As the satirization of Governor Palin as an inarticulate and uninformed candidate “chains out” across the media, there is always a leveling of that satire and an inherent impulse in the media to give the story “legs” by exposing any overstatement or unfair satirization. The Republicans do have the possibility that Governor Palin could emerge from the debate as bloodied, but with head held high, retaining her basic values. So, in an interesting twist, Governor Palin and her party could well profit electorally by valiant failure.  The debate on paper and in terms of traditional debating resumes is so uneven that it seems unfair and, as Americans, we always hope for Rocky to get up off the mat and fight valiantly. I would say to the Democrats to be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. To the Republicans, I would say, be careful — working-class men and women might not identify with Governor Palin as their standard bearer in these troubled times.

Doug Stone is a former reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune and assistant news director at WCCO-TV. He writes on national and international affairs.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Gail O'Hare on 10/02/2008 - 01:31 pm.

    I hope Ifill concentrates on questions for which answers won’t already be prepared. It may have been true in the past that veep debates don’t matter, but it should never be true again. Eight presidents have died in office. We need to hear from both candidates what they would do on day one after their president dies or is incapacitated.

    Lehrer concentrated on the war as the focus of foreign policy, which was too limiting. We need to know how candidates feel about the UN and our other international relationships. Neo-cons deliberately and effectively derogated the UN until it became clear we couldn’t make it with just our few loyal pals, but there continues to be mistrust and contempt toward the UN. World health threats weren’t touched – bird flu, lead and melamine contamination, the fiasco of a TB infected citizen potentially infecting passengers on two international airlines. What thought has either given to bioterrorism?

    I’m not just hoping to see one or the other fail. I’m hoping Ifill succeeds.

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