11/03/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why I Called It for Joe Biden

The Twainesque, Becky Thatcher, awww-shucks shtick is wearing a bit thin. It works for certain audiences under certain conditions, but the stakes were too high on Thursday for Sarah Palin to use it all night.

Her folksy fireworks flat-lined after an hour, and as she sounded more and more like the teacher in the Charlie Brown cartoon - a wordless series of wahh-wahh-wahhs - Joe Biden found an opening, bared his soul and reduced her to an also-ran.

At least that was my sense on the set of Politics Live, ABC NOW's premiere political program, where I called the debate with Sam Donaldson and Rick Klein.

For me, the event effectively ended in one-and-a-half unscripted minutes, when the powerful chairman of our Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recalled his father, who at times was unable to support his family, the death of his wife and daughter, and welled with emotion as he shared the abject fear he felt not knowing if his sons would survive the same accident.

It was tough and it was genuine, and with it Biden commandeered Palin's entire political persona. He became the candidate of empathy - and of family - and positioned himself on that stage as the candidate who understands life's hard knocks and can, in the words of that father, get back up.

And that was just the beginning.

With Palin a bit off-guard, he shredded the other half of the image she proudly waves - that McCain is a so-called maverick and she is his political soulmate .

Biden: Look, let's talk about the maverick John McCain is. And again I love him, he's been a maverick on some issues but he's been no maverick on things that a matter people's lives. He voted four out of five times for George Bush's budget which put us half a trillion in debt this year and over three trillion in debt since he got there. He has not been a maverick in providing health care for people. He voted against including another 3.6 million children in coverage of an existing health care plan in the United States Senate. He's not been a maverick when it comes to education. He has not supported tax cuts and significant changes for people being able to send their kids to college, he's not been a maverick on the war, not been a maverick on virtually anything that generally affects the things people really talk about around the kitchen table. Can we get mom's MRI? Can we send Mary back to school next semester? We can't make it. How will we heat the house this winter? He even voted against what they call LIHEAP, for assistance for people with oil prices going through the roof in the winter. So a maverick he is not, on the important critical issues that affect people at the kitchen table


The thrill of any debate comes in that one moment - and it almost always comes if you are patient - when one candidate finds a small opening and claims the evening.

That's what Biden did to Palin in the final 15 minutes Thursday with a one-two political punch I suspect will look more and more potent in the next day or two. The old pro bided his time until it counted then gave the performance of his career.

But there is an epilogue to this story.

Palin brought her "A" game to St. Louis. She showed up and showed America after her disastrous performance with Katie Couric that she, too, could get back up. She stayed on message, and for most of the evening she delivered a spirited defense of McCain's policies and their campaign. Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Jeb Bush better keep their right eyes peeled.

Palin showed why she's a popular and competent politician in Alaska, a state with the population of Ft. Worth, Texas. But she never crossed the threshold and convinced us she is presidential.

Her one attempt at a zinger, "Say it ain't so, Joe. There you go again," frankly was a bit embarrassing.

Here is the deal, and I think it's what many American sense: she has her moments, but she just isn't ready to be a heartbeat away.

If she were, she would have had the confidence to reach out to Biden and send some compassionate signal, verbally or with the look on her face, in that compelling moment when he choked up about his sons.

Instead, she hesitated, looked forward and stuck to the script. The candidate of empathy froze cold as ice. She didn't know what to do or how to handle it. That, I believe, is what happened this week with Couric.

It is inexplicable that Palin couldn't name a newspaper or magazine that she reads regularly. I don't believe she doesn't read. Adults read. They just do. And every politician - every single mayor and governor in America - reads the local paper. That's how they know what to say.

It is also inexplicable that she couldn't name a Supreme Court case she disagreed with. I'm not talking plaintiff v. defendant, and Couric wasn't either. But evangelicals have built a whole political movement since the early 1970s around the court's decision to outlaw prayer in schools. Surely she remembered and disagreed with that.

The point is, I believe Palin reads, and I believe she knows plenty of Supreme Court cases. I believe she just wasn't sure. She wasn't sure with Couric and she wasn't sure in that one instant on Thursday when Biden took the debate away from her. She wasn't ready to pull the trigger the way Dick Cheney, John Edwards and Joe Lieberman were when they were called to do so when it was their turns.

People who are ready for the highest office in our democracy have that confidence, and we want to see it. They know there isn't really a right or wrong answer to those questions as George Bush showed when he once named Jesus as his favorite philosopher.

Palin solidified her place Thursday as a rising star in the Republican Party. She played in a big game and performed well, but the evening clearly belonged to Biden.

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