Vice-Presidential Debate Preview: Tested, Gaffe-Prone Joe Biden Vs. Untested, Gaffe-Prone Sarah Palin

Preparedness, succinct answers could determine winner of VP faceoff.

The newbie vs. the veteran. The short-timer vs. the lifer. The historic candidate vs. the candidate who’s lived history. No, it’s not another Obama/McCain smackdown — it’s the vice-presidential debate scheduled for Thursday night at Washington University in St. Louis.

With most eyes focused on the stalled financial bailout bill in Congress and Wall Street’s roller-coaster ride, you’d think the VP debate would fade into the background. In most presidential election years, the veep faceoff is a sideline diversion at best, but in this historic election cycle the drama has been pumped up on every level. So when Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin takes the stage to hash out the issues with Democratic candidate Senator Joseph Biden , the fireworks — and ratings — could be even bigger than last week’s first first presidential stare-down .

On one hand, you have the untested Palin, the first-term Alaska governor plucked from relative obscurity by Republican nominee Senator John McCain last month and thrust into the harsh national spotlight, so far to middling results. On the other, there’s 35-year Senate veteran Biden, whose experience on foreign policy and the inner workings of government is unquestionable, but whose tendency to go “off message” has frequently come back to bite him.

As their respective campaigns did last week, both camps are lowering expectations as to how their candidates will perform. But the pressure is on for both to prove themselves as worthy running mates whose grasp of complicated national and international affairs will help their bosses bring that much-discussed change to Washington.

Just about everyone will tell you that this debate will not decide the election because, at the end of the day, voters cast their ballots for the top of the ticket. But if you tune in, here’s your scorecard:

Biden

His strengths: Biden’s working-class Irish Catholic roots in Scranton, Pennsylvania, (relatively) modest income and well-documented daily train trips home from Washington to Delaware give him an everyman appeal that works in the Democrats’ favor at a time when the middle class is worried about the economy and home mortgage defaults. It also helps him combat Obama’s Ivy League image, putting Biden on more equal footing with the meat-and-potatoes backstory Palin has rolled out during her run. With two failed presidential runs and nearly four decades of mixing it up in the Senate under his belt, he’s got plenty of experience when it comes to speaking his mind in public forums.

The six-term Democrat is also chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He participated in 14 of the 26 Democratic presidential debates before dropping out of the race in early January.

His weaknesses: Biden is notorious for his loose lips and long-windedness. How gaffe-prone is he? Republicans have set up a Web site to track his foot-in-mouth disease. Some Democrats are worried after he twice contradicted the Obama campaign last week — once calling one of his campaign’s own ads “terrible” — in addition to recently suggesting that rival Senator Hillary Clinton might have been a better veep pick. He also misspoke during a CBS interview last week, in which he said that Franklin D. Roosevelt appeared on TV to explain the stock-market crash in 1929, even though Herbert Hoover was president at the time and television did not start appearing in American homes for years.

Any evidence of one of these well-known weaknesses could become instant cannon fodder for a McCain campaign that finds itself a few points down in most major polls with just over a month left before voters cast their ballots.

What he needs to do: Biden’s emotions sometimes get the best of him, and when pushed he has sometimes gone way off message in the past, either railing against McCain in near nuclear-meltdown terms or inflating his own experience. On the other hand, that emotional appeal often helps Biden connect to audiences, so he needs to strike the right balance to win the debate. Most of all, Biden needs to give succinct answers and cut himself off before he has a chance to ramble and provide Republicans with easy sound bites for campaign commercials.

While the first President Bush appeared off-balance¬†and condescending at times when he faced the first-ever female VP candidate, Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, in a 1984 debate, Biden has to avoid looking like he’s deferring to Palin and not play up the underlying man vs. woman story line.

What you can expect to see: Biden is widely expected to go easy on Palin and downplay any major mistakes by his rival to avoid appearing sexist at worst and condescending at best. He will, however, trumpet his ample experience on the world stage and attack his longtime Senate cohort and friend, McCain, while trying to make the case that Obama is better for the country. He will also likely try to pin the current financial crisis on the Republicans and argue that McCain is essentially promising a third Bush term if elected.

Palin

Her strengths: Palin is wildly popular among her party’s core conservative base, with some polls showing her running at an 87 percent favorable score. As a former sportscaster, Palin is very aware of the camera and has mastered speaking to the lens and employing a myriad of gestures that make her seem vibrant, plucky and friendly, which gives her high marks in the all-important “want to have a beer /cup of coffee with” category.

While some might see it as a weakness, a number of commentators have said that it might work in Palin’s favor that the expectations bar has been set so low for her on Thursday; simply staying in the game could be perceived as a win for her. Despite her lack of experience on the national stage, The New York Times wrote this week that in her 23 debates in the 2006 race for the Alaska governorship, Palin “held her own” and won over voters with her populist stance against oil companies, projecting a “fresh, down-to-earth face at a time when voters wanted change.”

Her debating style was described as “rarely confrontational” and “confident.” The McCain campaign was able to ensure that the format for the debate favors Palin, with shorter question-and-answer segments than those for the presidential nominees and less open-ended exchanges between the candidates.

Her weaknesses: This week, the Washington Post reported that some conservative Republicans, who were singing Palin’s pro-gun, anti-abortion praises just weeks ago, are starting to express reservations about her candidacy and the way the McCain campaign is using (or, as the case might be, not using) her. Several prominent Republicans have argued that McCain needs to let Palin loose and stop protecting her from the press. But in her major interviews so far — including one last week with ABC News in which she could not name a single news source she relies on for information — Palin has seemed unprepared to answer questions about the pressing national and international matters of the day.

The Times story also recounted how in her earlier debates, as in recent interviews, Palin often spoke in “generalities and showed scant aptitude for developing arguments beyond a talking point or two,” a deficiency that could leave a wide opening for Biden to contrast his command of global politics with his competitor’s lack of knowledge. Palin reportedly also has a tendency to talk in complicated circles that make her answers hard to decipher, ending her responses abruptly and not utilizing her allotted time.

What she needs to do: Instead of speaking in talking points and repeating the already well-worn keywords from her stump speech (“maverick,” “hockey mom”), Palin needs to show a deeper command of the issues of the day while keeping her attack focused on the top of the Democratic ticket. She also needs to assure the country that should anything happen to the 72-year-old McCain, she is capable of taking over. And, unlike McCain — who steadfastly avoided eye contact with Obama during their debate — Palin would benefit from looking her opponent in the eye and engaging him on the issues as if she were his political equal.

What you can expect to see: Palin appealing to her conservative base with tough talk on reforming Washington and by playing up McCain’s credentials and war-hero status. Also expect attacks on Biden’s long liberal voting record in the Senate and his opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Following the one and only VP debate, the presidential candidates will be back at it on Tuesday in Nashville.

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