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The VP debate: no big gaffes, some cotton candy

All smiles after the debate: Sen. Joe Biden and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
REUTERS/Carlos Barria
All smiles after the debate: Sen. Joe Biden and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Big sigh of relief — the vice-presidential candidates didn’t embarrass themselves in their one and only debate, according to local professors who specialize in politics. Gov. Sarah Palin was more confident and prepared than in recent media interviews. And, Sen. Joe Biden avoided the gaffes and long-winded answers that have dogged him in the past.

Still, one professor said, Palin spun “cotton candy with a strong demeanor that suggested it was good for us.” Most agreed Biden was stronger on substance.

MinnPost asked local professors who previewed the debate Thursday to give us their reactions after watching last night:

Angela High-Pippert, associate professor of political science and director of women’s studies at the University of St. Thomas:

Both vice-presidential candidates had a good night. Concerns about long-winded answers or less-than-flattering interview performances were overblown, and both candidates accomplished what they set out to do. Biden used this debate to clarify Sen. Barack Obama’s positions on tax cuts for the middle class and health care reform, for example. Overall, he highlighted the differences between an Obama-Biden ticket and Sen. John McCain, rather than challenging Palin’s statements during the debate. After apparently one too many references to the maverick of the Senate, Biden also challenged the primary framing of the McCain-Palin ticket by asserting that McCain has not been a maverick on kitchen table issues that matter to most Americans.

For her part, Palin connected with voters by speaking directly to them, and describing herself as middle-class, a “main-streeter like you,” and a Washington outsider, as opposed to an “East Coast politician.” It would have been difficult not to notice that her answers to moderator Gwen Ifill’s questions dealt more with abstract ideas while Biden was able to get more specific in his answers, but people who are predisposed to like Palin will not hold that against her. She is obviously less experienced than Biden, but she presented herself as prepared, confident and able to do more than hold her own. As Biden’s father liked to say, when you are knocked down, get up. Palin may have been knocked down this week, but this debate allowed her to get up. Any effect on the McCain-Palin poll numbers will probably be short-term, but the long-term effect could be played out in her political future.

Kathryn Pearson, assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota and MinnPost contributing writer:

Biden outperformed Palin on many dimensions in last night’s debate. He demonstrated greater knowledge of the issues, provided more specifics, and was more responsive to the actual questions posed by moderator Gwen Ifill. Nonetheless, the big news coming out of the debate is that Palin exceeded, perhaps significantly, expectations. Palin’s confident answers, punctuated with pithy attacks against Obama and Biden, likely went a long way toward reassuring Republicans about McCain’s choice and rectifying the damage caused by her interviews with Katie Couric. Both candidates made a great effort to connect with middle class voters, and Palin’s folksy style and reminders that she is a “Washington outsider” likely helped her in that effort.

In the end, despite the unusually high level of anticipation surrounding this debate and the stark differences between the candidates’ policy positions, experience, and style, the debate will not be a “game changer.” Viewers’ reactions will likely divide along party lines in predictable ways, as is the case in most debates. Republicans will indicate that Palin “won” the debate, citing her confident performance and pointed attacks, and Democrats will claim that Biden “won,” pointing out the ways in which Biden was a superior debater. Most “swing voters” (at least those who watched — uncommitted voters are less likely to watch debates because they are less interested in politics in general) won’t have found enough in this debate to shape their vote choice one way or the other and thus will decide how to vote later, based on the candidates at the top of the ticket.  

Adrienne Christiansen, associate professor of political science at Macalester College:

Palin held her own and vastly exceeded my expectations of her. She was confident, assured, mostly fluent, even cocky. The brief two-minute format allowed her to repeat familiar campaign-speech bromides with which she is quite comfortable. I found it odd that the campaign would agree to certain conventions in the debate, and then she would refuse to follow them. I find myself discomforted by her cocky colloquialisms, her sarcasm, her “shout out” to the third- graders, and her assurance that Biden’s wife (a teacher) would “earn her reward in heaven.” None of these moments suggested that she really understands the gravitas of her situation, or what it means to be “presidential.”

She has adopted the laid-back “familiarity” of modern American life, and seems not to understand the serious, life-altering, and life-and-death deliberations that mark the modern American presidency. Palin very frequently refused (sometimes explicitly) to answer the question posed to her. She would seize on a word in the question rather than the focus of the question and use that as a springboard to her own campaign talking points. Palin made no major gaffes, came across as capable and likeable although aggressive.

Both candidates had to be very concerned about gender-loaded answers and the challenges of walking around gender minefields. Both managed quite well in this regard. Biden was not condescending and humanized himself at the end of the debate when he talked about knowing what it was like to raise two sons on his own. He choked up briefly, composed himself, and didn’t “milk” the emotionality of the moment.

Overall, I think Biden won definitively in terms of the substance of the discussions. He was informed, his answers reflected nuance and understanding of political complexities. In contrast, Palin seemed remarkably thin in her grasp of the issues. In contrast, she won in terms of the expectations game, and in terms of cocky confidence. Although I found many of her answers to have the cloying sweetness and lack of substance that one experiences with cotton candy, she delivered that cotton candy with a strong demeanor that suggested that cotton candy was good for us.

I think Biden really punctured the “maverick” claims of the Republican ticket. He should have done it immediately rather than wait to the end of the debate.

Palin’s performance will give the Republican ticket a lift in the next couple of days and will almost certainly reassure Republicans who were beginning to waver in their earlier joyful embrace of Palin. She did not prove herself to be presidential material, nor was she a babbling idiot as many of her detractors suggested and to which her interview with Katie Couric provided ammunition.

John F. Cragan, Distinguished Service Professor in communication and journalism at the University of St. Thomas:

Palin exceeded expectations. There were no “Tina Fey” moments. She reassured the Republican base that she is an acceptable vice-presidential candidate. McCain’s judgment was on the line in this debate. Media interviews, “Saturday Night Live,” and YouTube parodies brought into question her qualifications in a way that resembled 1988 with the selection of Sen. Dan Quayle for vice president by George H. W. Bush.

Gwen Ifill’s questions seemed to be anticipated by both candidates and they both were well-rehearsed and ready with their answers. This format allowed Palin to cut-and-paste her stump speech to the questions asked by Ifill. Palin portrayed herself as a maverick, a reformer, and a Washington outsider. She spent many moments dramatizing herself as one who identifies with soccer moms, hockey moms, and Joe Sixpack.  She demonstrated a knowledge of domestic and foreign policy issues that exceeded pundit expectations. So in this sense, she accomplished her main goal for the debate.

Biden also exceeded expectations. He gave disciplined, mature statesmen-like answers to the moderator’s questions. He was kind and considerate of his opponent. His identity as a senior statesman was greatly enhanced by the debate. Democrats should be pleased with how well he represented the Obama-Biden ticket. His years in the Senate and his in-depth knowledge of domestic and foreign policy issues were clearly on display.

Probably the most memorable statements by him related to his personal issues as a single parent. His heart-felt emotions about the death of his first wife and the near-death of his son provided a dramatic counter to the personal narratives that dominated Palin’s presentation. He made many substantive charges against McCain’s identity as a maverick by pointing out the many times McCain voted with the Bush administration’s policies.  

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 (8)

  1. Submitted by Erik Ostrom on 10/03/2008 - 01:21 pm.

    The one question I didn’t think the candidates saw coming was about Cheney’s belief that the Vice President is not strictly part of the executive branch (and thus is not subject to its rules). Palin spoke in vagaries for a few seconds and then went back to talking about her “executive experience”. Biden answered the question specifically and with some fire, not, I think, because he expected it, but because he understood it once it was asked.

  2. Submitted by Gail O'Hare on 10/03/2008 - 01:29 pm.

    I agree this was not a game-changer, but I hope people see through Palin’s refusal to answer questions. Mild Gwen Ifill was incapable of enforcing the rules of the format.

    Newt Ginrich’s GOPAC trains its candidates to answer questions the way Palin did–if you don’t know or don’t have a strong answer, rephrase the question to show you’ve taken it in, find a talking point that has some general connection with the theme (er, health care…need for it in this economy…tax cuts will help economy ), segue to your talking point, and you’re off and running.

    I found watching this debate exhausting, largely because I kept struggling to find a connection between Palin’s responses and the questions. There was no connection.

  3. Submitted by Loretta Holscher on 10/03/2008 - 01:47 pm.

    Biden’s knowledge far outweighed Palin’s thin script.

  4. Submitted by Jacob Valento on 10/03/2008 - 01:51 pm.

    Along the same lines as the above comments, I was particularly disappointed in Gwen Ifill’s lack of authority as the moderator.

    I was under the impression that it was her duty to hold the candidates to task when it came to the discipline of answering the questions she put forth (Jim Lehrer stopped several times last week to not only remind the candidates that they were both failing to answer his question, but to also then rephrase the question for them).

    All Gwen needed to do was to explicitly point out to Palin just once that she did not answer the question very accurately (or at all, in some cases) for the pattern to become plainly obvious to ALL the viewers, including her supporters.

    I thought Palin got away with that far too many times, and was frustrated with Ifill.

  5. Submitted by Peter Hood on 10/03/2008 - 03:06 pm.

    This reminds me so much of “The Emperor Has No Clothes”. The Republicans have been so threatening with the “s” word (sexist) or the “l” word (liberal press) that nearly everyone is afraid to state what is obvious. And in the meantime, the Republican campaign continues believing in its own delusion, avoiding the reality. The issue here has nothing to do with being conservative (there are many good ones), or being a Republican (there are many great ones) or a being a woman (their political abilities equal those of any man)…Sarah Palin, herself, is incompetent for the position of vice president and this casts serious doubt on the leadership ability of the person who appointed her to be his running mate. I can’t believe there is a person who watched the debate who could see anything else but this.

  6. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 10/03/2008 - 08:20 pm.

  7. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 10/03/2008 - 10:24 pm.

  8. Submitted by John N. Finn on 10/05/2008 - 03:30 pm.

    Compare and contrast: I was discussing Palin recently when I remembered that back in ’87 we had a woman tentativly running for president, Patricia Schroeder. She didn’t get too far, and became a SNL parody. How far we have fallen.

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