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The Nightmare VP Debate Scenario: Biden, Beware! (Update: Nightmare Averted!)

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NOTE: The post-debate update appears below the original post. But first things first, here's the original:

Let me preface this by saying how much I hope I'm wrong. And there are many reasons I might be, so that's good. But consider...

Palin has become a national laughingstock by flailing her way through "getting to know you" questions about her background and her knowledge of issues she doesn't know much about. Many people are anticipating more of the same at tonight's debate.

But debate questions are different: they don't ask what the candidate knows about an issue, they ask how the candidate would handle the issue, what policy approach they support. To good Democrats, this may seem like a subtle distinction: after all, how can you explain your policy if you can't explain the issue? But that's exactly the kind of thinking that causes Democrats to lose debates to much less knowledgeable foes. "Winning" this kind of debate is not about demonstrating you're smarter than the other guy/gal, or even that you'd pursue better policies. The swing voters you're trying to win over don't follow politics closely, and by definition don't have strong preferences for the policies of one side or the other. Winning the debate is about connecting with them emotionally, showing them that you like people like them and that you're tough enough for the job.

So what does a good debate answer sound like? Start with that emotional connection: tell a story about how the issue you were asked about affects regular people, either something you heard on the trail, or better yet something personal. Ideally, you spend most of your 90 seconds here, because this will hold voters' attention and convey that you care. Don't have a good specific story? Just talk with some feeling about how and why people care about the issue. The point here is to demonstrate that you share voters' concerns.

Only after you've won their hearts do you answer the question - at least, sort of. Start with a few words of general principle that no one could disagree with. This makes you look sympathetic and strong, the candidate of common sense. Then offer a couple lines about specific policies that would further those aims, just enough so no one accuses you of dodging the question. Tack on a dig at your opponent to put them on the defensive, and you're done.

Does Palin have folksy stories? You betcha. Can she memorize a few talking points about each of the dozen issues she might get asked about? Sure thing. Can she deliver a barbed line mischaracterizing her opponents? No doubt.

Not only do standard debate questions work in Palin's favor, she's also helped by a regimented debate format, because unlike in the wide-ranging interviews she has flubbed, there is usually much less room for follow-up questions to try to pin her down. Put all this together and you see it was no fluke that Palin did well in her gubernatorial debates.

So what would happen if Palin did okay, or even a little better than okay, in tonight's debate? First of all, relative to prevailing expectations, it would be a triumph. The story would be how well Palin did, which could get people thinking maybe they had underestimated her, which could imply maybe they had underestimated McCain. Given the attention this matchup will receive, that might even be enough to nudge the momentum back their way.

But Palin won't be alone under the lights: Joe Biden and Gwen Ifill will be there too. When you imagine their reactions, the scenario gets even more interesting.

First of all, Joe. Biden is a smart guy, and I like him a lot, but there is a reason he has never quite made it out of the middle of the pack of presidential contenders. He often seems to want to wow people, and tries a little too hard. He puts on a show, saying things like "Ladies and gentlemen..." and flashing his great toothy grin - sometimes even grinning when he's talking about war and terrorism and suffering. As many have recognized, this could prove disastrous: if he goes after Palin, he risks coming off as overbearing, obnoxious, a high-handed know-it-all. Reasonably enough, many people have said Biden should just remain composed and respectful, answer the questions and engage Palin as little as possible.

The problem is that this disengagement strategy is premised in part on the idea that Palin is a ticking time bomb: that all Biden has to do is stay out of her way and she'll eventually get a question she can't handle and self-destruct. But what if she doesn't? What if , midway through, Palin is doing okay, or better than okay? If you're Joe Biden, are you going to just sit there and let her play you to a draw - or beat you? On the biggest stage Biden has ever been on, is he going to let himself get shown up by someone everybody knows is an idiot? Or does Biden get agitated, and start looking for opportunities to attack, to pin Palin down, to put her in her place? If Biden stops playing it safe, all bets are off. He might be brilliant, but things might also go horribly wrong.

There's also another interesting subplot to watch tonight too: Gwen Ifill. First Charlie Gibson and then Katie Couric greatly enhanced their professional reputations by conducting respectful but revealing interviews with Palin. If Palin has her answers ready, and Ifill just follows standard debate protocol, Palin could come through unscathed - even though everyone knows she doesn't understand most of the issues she'll be asked about. Does Ifill want to be known as the first national TV journalist to let Palin get away with bluffing her way through? Or will Ifill exercise more Russert-like discretion and try to pin Palin down?

The press has already done a remarkable job exposing Palin as anything but the reformer she was billed as, and has decisively established that she is not ready to be VP. But while this debate could turn out to be the final nail in her coffin, we misunderestimate her at our peril - just like we once did with another intellectually challenged governor, George W. Bush.

POST-DEBATE UPDATE: Phew. So how did it unfold last night? Very well, is how.

Palin, for her part, showed up pretty well-prepared. She had studied hard enough that she did not screw up anything obvious, at least nothing she was immediately caught on. (When Palin mistakenly called General McKiernan General McClellan, Biden might have said "I believe you're talking about General McKiernan, who commands our forces in Afghanistan..." but he missed it or let it pass.)

But though she didn't blow it big-time, she spent the whole night noticeably tense, working hard to come up with the answers. This limited her ability to do what she does best: her folksy down-home thing. She had a few good kitchen-table riffs at the beginning, turning on the smile and the charm as she recommended that Americans need to prevent these kinds of financial crises by saving more (which sounds wholesomely common-sensy until you realize that means giving more of our hard-earned money to the financial professionals who just tanked the stock market).

But that was as close to the nightmare as we ever got. Biden did not excel rhetorically during the opening section on economic policy, but he stayed calm, patient and friendly through Palin's volleys of charm. And before anything got out of hand, Ifill shifted the terrain to foreign policy. With that, Palin had to work even harder, and found many fewer opportunities to be charming. Biden was confident, even fierce at moments, but stayed very respectful, smiled at all the right moments, and steadily refused to overplay his hand.

By the time the ground shifted back to domestic policy, Biden knew that even if she didn't fall on her face, he had made his point: that only one of the people on stage looked ready to be President. He was even able to tug at some heartstrings himself, referencing the terrible accident that killed his first wife in a moment of real, powerful emotion, and connecting that to people's struggles to raise their children in trying times. It was, as David Gergen said, the best debate performance of his career.

Palin helped herself too: though she struggled and stumbled here and there, she was not caught flat-footed the way she had been in her recent Couric interviews. With the public expecting disaster, she cleared the bar easily. But she did not recapture the magic of her initial introduction. She was more guarded and tense, less confident. She did not produce any of the kind of sharp one-liners that she had read so effectively from the teleprompter at the convention. She had her moments of folksy charm, talking to Americans at home, but they were too few and too tepid. She had none of the funny barbed attacks on the cultural elite that had made her seem so appealingly sassy, and the tepid attacks she tried fell flat, according to CNN's undecided voter dial group. (One wonders if the Obama campaign had done a better job of calling out her lying in the few days before her convention speech, whether she might have been received more skeptically at the convention.)

Maybe more important in the long run, watching her last night, the prospect of her becoming President still seemed pretty unsettling, I'd suspect even for conservatives. A lot of people are generally willing to roll the dice on a bumbling regular person as President. In the wake of eight unhappy years of Bush, and with the economy threatening to melt down, that is a lot less appealing right now. Whatever she did last night on the charm front, she did very little to reassure America she had the necessary gravitas or a competent grasp of the issues.

All in all, this debate echoed the first Obama-McCain debate: the Democrat was confident, smiling, happy to be there but stern and tough when the moment called for it. The Republican was tense, fumbling for the answers, never rising above standard riffs, and inspiring little confidence.

There may still be a game-changer in this race, and I definitely expect a few more hail-Marys from the Rovian schemers behind the McCain-Palin campaign. But this debate was not a game-changer.

Phew!

Update update: Peggy Noonan thinks the nightmare scenario actually unfolded, minus Joe flipping out. But maybe she's just pretending, to make up for her initial dis of Palin back when. Interesting to see the other spin though.