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Palin Wins, Sorta

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The second debate of the 2008 general election pitted the vice-presidential candidates: Democratic Senator Joe Biden and Republican Governor Sarah Palin. Palin won the contest because she didn't appear to be out of her league: before the debate, 43 percent of Americans saw her as "knowledgeable about the important issues;" after the contest, her rating improved to 66 percent. Nonetheless, Palin's performance is unlikely to change the national polls; she didn't lose, but neither did Joe Biden.

Palin's perky, feisty demeanor stood in marked contrast to Biden's staid, professorial manner. She seemed like a zany Washington outsider, while he came across as the long-term Senator he is. After the debate, a focus group of married women preferred Palin because they thought she was folksy.

Nonetheless, if viewers preferred Palin on a visceral level, their reaction didn't produce a decisive win over Biden; it didn't have the impact that McCain's cold, dismissive manner had in the first debate, where many voters instinctively rejected him. And the most emotional debate moment belonged to Biden, who choked up when he recalled caring for his infant sons after his wife and daughter were killed in a traffic accident.

Palin's performance reassured Republicans that she is not the disaster she seemed to be during her interviews with Katie Couric. She solidified her base, but didn't sway many independents. Given that presidential campaign momentum has swung to Barack Obama, Palin had to do more than avoid losing; she had to convince undecided voters they should vote for John McCain. And she didn't make a compelling case.

Governor Palin's debate instructions were succinct: be personable - tell her story, emphasize conservative values, attack Obama-Biden, and when she didn't feel confident answering a question, change the subject. She assiduously followed each of these. Palin constantly referred to her experience as governor, mayor, and mother. Early in the debate she said: "I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you [Biden] want to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record also." Palin repeatedly referred to conservative principles, talked about the necessity to reduce taxes and shrink the size of government. She attacked Obama as a tax and spend liberal who has "voted along his party lines... 96 percent" of the time. And when she was asked a tough question, she changed the subject.

Early in the debate, Biden mentioned a proposal he and Obama are sponsoring in the Senate that would help struggling homeowners: "Barack Obama and I [think] we should be allowing bankruptcy courts to be able to re-adjust not just the interest rate you're paying on your mortgage to be able to stay in your home, but be able to adjust the principal that you owe." Debate moderator Gwen Ifill asked Palin if it was true that she and John McCain opposed the Obama-Biden proposal. Palin responded by changing the subject: "That is not so, but because that's just a quick answer, I want to talk about, again, my record on energy." Because of the limitations of the VP debate format - there was little opportunity for follow up questions - Palin got away with a lie.

While Palin avoided disaster, she didn't bolster McCain's numbers because she didn't distinguish McCain's agenda from that of Bush. While she repeatedly described McCain as a maverick and generally kept to her talking points, Palin didn't address the key concern of most independent voters: how would a McCain-Palin administration differ from that of Bush-Cheney.

In contrast, Biden did a good job tying McCain to Bush. Even when Palin tried to skirt this issue - "there's just too much finger-pointing backwards" - Biden had a clever response: "Past is prologue... The issue is, how different is John McCain's policy going to be than George Bush's? I haven't heard anything yet." And he parried Palin's liberal use of the "maverick" label, by declaring: "[John McCain] has been no maverick on the things that matter to people's lives."

If Palin won by not losing, Joe Biden didn't do anything that impeded Obama's momentum. And, Biden owned the most memorable debate moment: "I understand what it's like to be a single parent. When my wife and daughter died and my two sons were gravely injured, I understand what it's like as a parent to wonder what it's like if your kid's going to make it." (Curiously, while Biden came near tears, Palin didn't acknowledge his response but instead segued into one of her talking points: "John McCain has been the consummate maverick.")

Spot polls had Biden winning, while some focus groups gave it to Palin. The most significant result came from the CBS poll: "Among the undecideds, 18 percent committed to Obama, and 10 percent committed to McCain, but 71 percent remained uncommitted." Thus, it seems unlikely that this debate changed the presidential polls: afterwards, Republicans favored Palin, Democrats were pleased with Biden, and undecideds still don't know.

Given that in the past two weeks the national poll trajectory has favored Barack Obama, last night's debate was bad news for John McCain.