10/31/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Mother Of All Expectation Games

First rule of thumb in presidential politics: if a GOP operative is saying it, it's not true.

That's why I'm disinclined to put much credibility in the WSJ's article today about GOP fears that Palin won't be able to pull off the Thursday debate.

The article doesn't feature a single GOP operative speaking in Palin's defense. Meanwhile, the article cites several examples of Plain "flubbing" mock debates, whatever that means.

Those leaks have to be coming from McCain-land. You never see that kind of stuff coming from a campaign unless it's planned, and their plan couldn't be more obvious. They are playing pre-debate spin wars, and they are doing it big time, workign feverishly to lower expectations for Palin's performance.

I'll give them some credit: they have done a great job of lowering expectations. They've made lemonade out of the CBS interview lemon, and it just might pay off in some small degree.

While there is always a chance Palin could gaffe during the debate, it's far more likely that she will do just fine, in large part because the debate's format is so rigidly structured (a fact that should also benefit Joe Biden, who is a gaffe-monster himself).

But even though they've managed to lower expectations, they haven't really dealt with the fundamental problem that they face, which is that at a time when the McCain campaign needs a game-changing moment, the best they can hope for in the debate on Thursday is that it isn't a calamity.

Fortunately for them, it probably won't be a calamity, but even if Palin wins the debate it won't mean much for the campaign. Remember Lloyd Bentsen's demolition of Dan Quayle in 1988? Take a look:

I'd be surprised as anybody if Palin won the debate as thoroughly as Bentsen did in 1988, but we all know what happened in 1988. (Similarly, if Biden wins like Bensten it won't change much.)

On the other hand, if Palin turns in a debate performance worthy of James Stockdale in 1992 (Ross Perot's "what am I doing here" running mate) McCain would suffer real demage, damage that no amount of pre-debate spin can counteract.

Again, a repeat of Stockdale 1992 probably isn't in the cards.

Most likely, on Friday morning we'll probably be looking at a race that's fundamentally unchanged. If it is changed, however, it won't be a good thing for McCain.

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