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Palin, Biden Go Toe-to-Toe

Republican vice presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska tonight held her own in a debate with her Democratic opponent, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, addressing a range of topics with apparent knowledge – or at least strong preparation – and avoiding the type of major gaffes her backers had feared could sink the struggling campaign of Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Biden spent much of the debate sharply attacking not Palin but McCain, seeking to soften the blows a bit by expressing his personal friendship with McCain. He even twice commented that he “loves” McCain. But Biden hammered away at McCain’s record on taxes and economy, as well as the Republican’s environmental credentials, casting him as a new adherent to the cause of alternative energy who had opposed such a strategy in the past. Biden pounded McCain for what he said was support of failed Bush administration policies in the Middle East, particularly with regard to Israel, where he said President Bush’s peace efforts have run aground. He fiercely defended Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama’s (Ill.) commitment to international negotiation, saying Bush’s policies could have used a greater dose of it. And he frequently sought to link McCain and Palin to Bush, a comparison Palin did not completely reject. But she asserted that McCain would learn from “past mistakes.” While pundits and voters will decide who won the debate – and whether Palin is qualified to be president – Palin managed to leave behind the halting, circular answers she delivered in recent interviews. Her performance may end questions about her ability to grapple with complicated issues, at least on a rhetorical level. Biden delved more deeply into the details and history of policy, but Palin demonstrated a knowledge of issues debated in Washington – and positions held by McCain – that she had not previously revealed. Palin frequently sought to shift the debate to issues she is comfortable with – particularly energy, a topic on which the chief executive of oil-rich Alaska said she has expertise. She said that in a McCain administration she would be expected to take the lead on energy, as well as government reform and issues related to families with special needs – she has a child with Down syndrome. Biden said he would act as the chief emissary to Congress for the man at the top of his ticket, should Obama be elected president. At several points, Palin partially or completely ignored questions to deliver what were clearly well-rehearsed statements on issues such as energy and taxes. At one point she switched a discussion of bankruptcy to a forum for her views on energy. “I want to talk about energy,” she exclaimed. Palin repeatedly sought to portray Biden and Obama as tax raisers, a charge Biden rebutted with the accusation that McCain would cut taxes for the wealthy and for oil companies. Palin sought to leaven her efforts at seriousness with a clear appeal to the working-class voters she is expected to help deliver for McCain, using colloquial phrases and terms such as “darn right,” “Joe six-pack,” and “hockey moms” while seeking to address many of her answers directly to middle-class voters. “We’re going to fight for the every day, average American family like mine,” Palin said during her final remarks. At one point, Palin interjected an obviously planned but well-delivered, Reagan-esque “Say it ain’t so Joe,” accusing Biden of looking too often with a critical eye toward the past instead of the future. Both candidates endeavored to subtly attack or defend vulnerabilities. Biden explained the Bush Doctrine as a right to pre-emptive strikes, a clear reminder to the audience of Palin’s failure in an interview to show she understood what the doctrine was. Palin at one point asked, “How long have I been at this, five weeks?” a seeming throwaway line that likely was carefully constructed to diminish expectations that she demonstrate the type of acumen that comes naturally to a Washington veteran such as Biden.

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