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Eric Schmeltzer Headshot

Palin's Debate Strategy and How Biden Can Beat It

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I'd bet all the money I have right now (which is about $3.50 thanks to the stock market) that the McCain campaign is prepping Sarah Palin for the debates with two connected mantras, right now:

1) The clock is Biden's enemy, and
2) Pride comes before the fall

A few things have become apparent during Sarah Palin's interviews over the past few weeks.

First and foremost, she has a very shallow understanding of the issues (to put it generously), and often jumbles up talking points in her head, leading to confusing, nonsensical answers when forced to address an issue. Example A of that would be her answer to Katie Couric on the bailout.

Second, when she is challenged on an issue which she didn't expect, and has no talking points for, she's unable to recover, and comes off as clueless as she probably is. Example B would be her answer on the Bush Doctrine with Charles Gibson.

Third, is that the McCain campaign telegraphed what they are happy with, which is when Palin shows herself able to hit back at questions without answering them - Sarah Barracuda, as they call it. Handlers crowed to Politico that they saw this in her latest interview with Couric.

This all lends itself to a strategy of Palin avoiding answering any questions in the debate that she's not comfortable with, and instead trying to shift the focus to attacks on Joe Biden. This strategy makes sense for the two reasons above. Biden is proud of his record and could feel the need to defend it, but, he only has two minutes in the highly structured format of this debate. So, the more he falls to temptation to defend his record, the less time he has to talk about what he and Senator Obama want to do. Additionally, it allows Palin to look tough and confident, with the seasoned Senator on the defensive.

Here's how it would work. A question about the bailout comes up:

  • Palin offers a programmed sentence about it, then talks about the need for reform in Washington so the crooks on Wall Street can't do this again, and then she brings up Biden's work on credit card issues as an example of how Washington has been corrupted, and the moniker "The Senator from MBNA."

  • Now Biden has two minutes. He could be tempted to defend his record, and with Biden's loquacious nature, could use all 120 seconds on his record, leaving him no time to talk about what he and Obama would do.

How do you beat a strategy like that? You coach Biden hard to deflect attacks with no more than 15 seconds in response and then pivot immediately by saying, "... but that's not the issue here. We need to address how we will help the Middle Class survive this economic meltdown..." Follow that with an explanation of the Obama-Biden Plan.

Biden also needs to monitor how many times Palin attacks without answering a question. At a certain point, when Biden feels that the perception has sunk in that Palin hasn't said anything about where she and McCain stands, Biden needs to do what doesn't come naturally to him - shut up.

Joe Biden should say, at that point: "You know, I have to say, I was really interested in coming here tonight and hearing more about where Governor Palin wants to take the nation with John McCain, but all I've heard are talking points about me, especially with that last question. So, I'd like to yield my time here back to Governor Palin, if you want it Governor Palin, because I think we ought to know what you and John McCain want to do."

That accomplishes two things: First, it forces Palin to talk about something she cannot talk about (i.e., issues), if she accepts the extra time. She can dig her own grave from there. But it also puts her on warning that if she sticks to the strategy of attacking Biden, she might get called on it, and be forced to go back and reanswer the initial question. At that point, she might be scared off the attack strategy. Again, she'd then have to try to answer questions, and would undoubtedly fail.

Can Biden do it? Sure he can. But, it will take recognition on the part of the Obama camp that Sarah Barracuda is coming to play, and poke and prod Biden's pride until he flies off his game and message points. And, more importantly, it will take Biden recognizing that this debate, and this race, is not about him.