Archive for the ‘Debates’ Category

There are roughly just over 24 hours to go until the vice presidential debate between Sen. Joe Biden and Gov. Sarah Palin. The VP debate usually does not get as much attention as the ones involving the presidential candidates, but this year could be an exception. Also keep in mind that the most famous debate zinger in political history (“You’re no Jack Kennedy”) happened during the VP debate. Here’s a look at the two candidates:

Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin has captured the attention of the political world, in large part due to a well-received convention speech and extremely limited access to the press. But her poll numbers and public image have taken a turn for the worse throughout the month of September, hitting what could be a low point after her interview with Katie Couric, which has gone viral on the Internet and led to a brutal Saturday Night Live parody. What makes the parody stand out is the fact that Tina Fey used Sarah Palin’s response almost verbatim from the interview.

As I said before, the only upside to that interview was that the bar has been lowered as much as humanly possible for Palin going into the debate. However, political journalists have been going over her past debate footage and the general consensus is that while she might not be as knowledgable or experienced as some of her opponents, she can hold her own and score a point.

If she can make an eloquent but forceful case against Barack Obama, and not make any major gaffes or repeat lines from the stump speech that have been factchecked repeatedly and proven inaccurate (i.e. her opposition to the Bridge to Nowhere), then her surrogates and the press will be able to say she held her own against Joe Biden for 90 minutes and declare her the winner.

Joe Biden

Joe Biden has two personal habits he must overcome if he wants to win the debate.

First: Senators are notoriously longwinded, and Biden is no exception. I remember when I was covering the Samuel Alito confirmation hearings for CNN that at one point Biden used his entire 25 minute round of Q and A to vent (what it was about I don’t remember) without asking Alito a single question.

But for all his ego and his love of hearing himself speak, Biden is a sharp man with decades of experience in the U.S. Senate with a profound understanding of many domestic and international issues. He was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, and is currently the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The trick for him I suspect, will be to keep his answers short and to the point within the parameters of the debate format. If he gives longwinded responses or goes off on too many tangents, he may lose the audience.

Brevity is the soul of wit, as the saying goes. Biden had what has so far been the most memorable zinger of the 2008 campaign cycle when he hit Rudy Giuliani during a Democratic debate: “There’s only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun and a verb and 9/11.” If he can keep it simple and to the point, without coming off as rude or condescending, it will be a good debate for him.

Second: Biden is notorious for being blunt in his manner and delivery, on the stump, during interviews, or debating in the Senate. This could be a problem for two reasons. First is his well-known propensity for making gaffes (like his recent claim of Franklin Roosevelt making a televised address after the Great Depression hit in 1929) or going off message (criticizing an Obama campaign ad attacking John McCain and then having to reverse himself later).

The second problem is he has a bit of a temper, which I’ve seen and heard firsthand. During the 2004 campaign, he was a top foreign policy surrogate for John Kerry, and during a campaign conference call I remember hearing his voice get progressively angrier and louder as his criticism of George W. Bush grew more intense. While covering contentious Senate hearings where Biden is involved, I’ve noticed he can show flashes of his intensity or temper from time to time. If he and his staffers can keep Angry Joe under control during the debate, he’ll be fine.

Some food for thought Thursday night: A pre-debate poll by Marist College shows that voters expect Biden to win the debate and be more informed, but they also expect to find Palin to be more likable. Their favorable/unfavorable ratings in the poll are roughly similar, but it’s necessary to point out that Palin’s have been on the way down for the past few weeks.

Finally, the New York Times wrote articles profiling Biden and Palin’s debate history and style. I highly recommend both of them.


Sarah Palin practicing for the VP debate with McCain aide Randy Schuenemann
Image courtesy of the McCain campaign, via Politico.

Republicans are probably not going to find too much comfort in reading stories like these in the Wall Street Journal. The whole thing is worth taking the time to read but these excerpts stand out:

The McCain campaign moved its top officials inside Gov. Sarah Palin’s operation Sunday to prepare for what is certain to be the most important event of her vice-presidential campaign: her debate on Thursday with Democrat Joe Biden.

The moves follow several shaky performances by Gov. Palin last week and come amid concern and grumbling from Republicans, and even a few queries from her husband, Todd Palin, according to campaign operatives and Republican officials.

Meanwhile, the more experienced advisers assigned to her by the McCain campaign are accustomed to working with seasoned candidates, not someone “completely green on the national stage,” one strategist said. Several Republican backers have griped that the campaign has put the candidate in difficult situations, from sitting for high-profile television interviews to popping into meetings with foreign leaders, some of whom made sexist remarks, said several officials.

Amid the heavy scrutiny in a close campaign, Gov. Palin is under considerable pressure to make Thursday’s debate a “game changer,” advisers said. The campaign is sending in Sen. McCain’s debate coach, Brett O’Donnell, to help with her preparation, advisers said. Though he always was expected to help out after Sen. McCain’s debate Friday in Oxford, Miss., Mr. O’Donnell now needs to “undo” much of her previous debate prep, which has resulted in occasional “rote” responses, one adviser said.

As if the thought of Sarah Palin going one-on-one with Joe Biden for 90 minutes before millions of television viewers weren’t nerve-wracking enough, it turns out that CBS may have more embarrassing Palin responses from the Katie Couric interview it will air in the days leading up to the VP debate later this week. The key detail, from this story by Politico’s Jonathan Martin:

Of concern to McCain’s campaign, however, is a remaining and still-undisclosed clip from Palin’s interview with Couric last week that has the political world buzzing.

The Palin aide, after first noting how “infuriating” it was for CBS to purportedly leak word about the gaffe, revealed that it came in response to a question about Supreme Court decisions.

After noting Roe vs. Wade, Palin was apparently unable to discuss any major court cases.

There was no verbal fumbling with this particular question as there was with some others, the aide said, but rather silence.

Now it looks like McCain’s people need to give her a crash course on national security, Supreme Court history and constitutional law, and the economy. They will be in the unenviable position of going into the debate hoping for the best but expecting the worst.

Update: The McCain campaign released the photo of Palin practicing for the debate with McCain foreign policy aide Randy Schuenemann after I posted this, so I’ve added it retroactively.

Also, the New York Times has a story on Palin’s debate prep. The following graphs are worth noting:

Ms. Palin has traveled with a briefing team since Sept. 10. Two people close to the campaign, addressing her difficulties, said she had been stuffed with facts as if preparing for an oral exam and had become nervous and unnatural in the few interviews.

Advisers said she was a diligent worker and was frequently up until the small hours of the morning in her hotel room trying to cram as much information as possible before the debate.

I know there’s no way anyone can ever be absolutely 100 percent prepared for a nationally televised debate, but is it feasible to think that late night cram sessions are going to help her at this point? This is the vice presidency of the United States that’s at stake, not a college midterm.

While both campaigns are playing the expectations game and raising or lowering the bars for the two candidates, Politico has this interesting study of Palin’s past debate performances. In essence: she can hold her own and Democrats would be foolish to think she’s a pushover just because she’s been a disaster in two out of the three nationally televised interviews she’s done since being tapped as McCain’s running mate.

The conventional wisdom and expectations are in Joe Biden’s favor, but as numerous articles have pointed out, he needs to avoid appearing condescending or indignant whenever Palin makes a mistake. A note from the only other vice presidential debate with a female candidate: George H.W. Bush ran into a mild backlash after an exchange he had with Geraldine Ferraro during the 1984 campaign.