Election 2008

Jeff Roberson/AP
Mike Hart, a technician with Washington University, waits to pull a cable up from the stage as
preparations continue for the upcoming vice presidential debate.

Previewing the Vice Presidential Debate

October 02, 2008 01:39 PM
by Liz Colville
On Thursday, Oct. 2 at 8 p.m. CDT, vice presidential candidates Sarah Palin and Joe Biden will take the stage for a 90-minute debate at Washington University in St. Louis.

Palin and Biden to Take Center Stage

With its presidential debate of 1992, Washington University in St. Louis began a tradition of selling debate tickets solely to its student body, which it will continue for the Biden-Palin event. The debate will challenge two candidates with distinctly different backgrounds: the younger governor and former mayor from Alaska with a reputation as a reformer, and the three-decade senator representing Delaware, who is known for his foreign policy experience.
The debate will be moderated by Gwen Ifill, who also moderated the 2004 vice presidential debate between Dick Cheney and John Edwards. Ifill is currently the managing editor and moderator of the PBS program “Washington Week,” and a senior correspondent for “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.” Lehrer hosted the first presidential debate held on Sept. 26.

Gov. Palin spent Wednesday and Thursday preparing for the debate at Ariz. Sen. John McCain’s Arizona ranch, accompanied by her husband Todd, according to ABC News. Meanwhile, Sen. Biden has been preparing by, among other things, receiving pointers from female politicians. In recent weeks he “has taken advice from Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, presumably offering tips on how to debate women without seeming sexist or bullying,” reports the ABC blog Political Punch.

The Ifill Factor

The Boston Herald writes that while the Biden-Palin debate “is shaping up to be the most watched in history,” the impartiality of its moderator, respected PBS anchor Gwen Ifill, has become a hot topic in recent days as news has spread of Ifill’s soon-to-be-published book, “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama,” which is slated for release on Inauguration Day. Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin has commented that Ifill is undeniably “in the tank” for Obama, and Professor Thomas Patterson of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government told the Herald, “It’s probably not the greatest thing on Earth that she is in that role and it’s probably going to really force her to be fully even-handed.”

Ifill defended her role in the debate, the Herald notes, telling the Associated Press, “I’m not particularly worried that one-day blog chatter is going to destroy my reputation. … They can watch the debate tomorrow night and make their own decisions about whether or not I’ve done my job.”

Opinion & Analysis: Awaiting the debate

Reuters’s John Whitesides observes that vice presidential debates “rarely play a role in White House races,” but this year “will be different—it could matter.” Whitesides describes Biden as “verbose,” alluding to his often long-winded remarks in the Senate and in interviews, and Palin as “sheltered,” hinting at her Washington-free political career and the fact that she has been “protected from reporters” in recent weeks, giving only two televised interviews.

David Axelrod, chief campaign strategist for the Obama campaign, quelled any suspicions that this won’t be a challenging debate for Biden. He told ABC News, “I think that if you go back and look at the debates that Gov. Palin’s had as a candidate, she’s very skilled and she’ll be well-prepared. … As you saw at the convention, she can be very good.”

The Independent’s Leonard Doyle argues that, as evidenced by Gov. Palin’s interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric, she can suffer from gaffes just the way Biden can. Commenting on the CBS News interview with Couric, Doyle said, “Her woeful inexperience and the yawning gaps in her knowledge of basic issues reminded voters of McCain’s advanced age at 72, and sparked questions about what sort of president she would make.”

Some of Palin’s fellow Alaskans interviewed by Fox News argued that, beyond the issues, the governor must “be herself” in the debate; following last week’s CBS and ABC interviews the McCain camp would do well to “Let Sarah be Sarah,” as former Palin pollster David Dittman put it. “It doesn’t serve her well to be loyal to the extent that she appears to be tentative or halting or unsure of herself,” he added.

But “Biden needs to be ready for two Sarah Palins: the smiling one and the attacking one,” said Democrat Bob Shrum, who advised John Kerry in 2004, in Newsweek. “Actually, she is pretty good at doing both at the same time. Joe should not go after her at all, but only after McCain.”

Stuart Stevens, who advised Cheney in 2004, remarked in the same article that vice presidential candidates must use the debate as another opportunity to define the position and how they fit into it. Palin “should define the job as a constant economic reality check. The card she has underplayed so far is the personal, economic-realism one. She can say, ‘I understand your family’s stress because I have lived it with a husband who works hard and five kids of our own. We know what life is like when you are at the mercy of economic forces you cannot control.’”

Reference: Recent Polls Rating Biden and Palin

Several recent polls compiled by the Web site PollingReport show Palin’s popularity falling from the earliest days of her nomination in late August. In many of these, the questions ask whether respondents have a “favorable” or “unfavorable” opinion of the candidate. For polls that have only been conducted once, the majority said they had a “favorable” opinion of the governor.

For Sen. Biden, recent poll results are less clear-cut, with some results showing his “favorable” rating drop a couple of percentage point in recent weeks, and others showing a steady increase from August to late September. In many of these, Biden’s “unfavorable” ratings have also risen over the same time period.

Related Topic: The first televised presidential debate

The advent of television in the 1950s meant that Americans had a new way of getting to know election candidates. In 1960, the first televised debate between Republican candidate Richard Nixon and Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy had an interesting results: those who watched the debate on television overwhelming declared Kennedy the winner, while most of those listening on the radio declared Nixon the winner. “The tanned, confident and media-savvy Kennedy wowed the estimated 80 million television viewers, while the pallid, fidgety and sickly Nixon paled in comparison,” writes the North Carolina Center for Voter Education.

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