Debate may be pivotal moment in campaign

[1 October 2008]

By James Oliphant

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

WILMINGTON, Del.—Pity Joe Biden.

You gotta feel for the guy. After a lifetime in politics, he was nearing the summit, poised, finally, to assume his place on the national stage.

Then some rookie governor of Alaska blows him off the map. Now, as the Democratic vice presidential nominee, he can barely get noticed.

Biden has watched the phenomenon that is Sarah Palin suck media coverage away. Here in Wilmington this week, for instance, as Biden prepared for Thursday’s vice presidential debate, only a smattering of reporters remained on-site.

But at the debate, the two will finally share the stage. And it’s shaping up as a pivotal moment for each.

It was only a few weeks ago that Palin was plucked from relative obscurity to become John McCain’s running mate. She immediately energized crowds, electrified conservatives and gave McCain’s campaign a momentum it had lacked—becoming a cultural phenomenon in the process.

Then things started going south. The initial excitement around Palin wore off, the financial crisis prompted some voters to rethink her readiness, her poll numbers fell and she performed poorly—at times almost incoherently—in an interview with CBS’ Katie Couric.

This may be Palin’s last chance to show she has the stature to be president. And if she fumbles, it may be one of the rare vice presidential debates that affects the outcome of a presidential race.

Biden is not the celebrity Palin is, but his story is equally dramatic in its way. He entered the Senate 35 years ago as a boy wonder, one of the youngest individuals ever elected to the body, his future seemingly unlimited. Then he suffered a series of personal and political disasters, some self-inflicted, at times even becoming the object of ridicule for his long-windedness.

Barack Obama may have saved Biden from ending his career as just one more long-serving senator. This is his chance to achieve the glory he’s coveted but never really approached.

A good argument can be made that the pressure is really on Biden Thursday night. He needs to sustain the momentum that Obama has developed during these past weeks as the economy has become an overriding issue.

Palin faces pressure to reverse the sense from a growing number of voters—and reflected in national polls—that she isn’t prepared to assume the presidency should something happen to the 72-year-old McCain. But Biden is like a football team with the lead, and he may show up playing not to lose, while Palin is looking for a dramatic victory.

The game-within-the-game has been one of setting expectations. The Obama campaign will tell anyone who will listen that Palin is a skilled debater. McCain this week has called Biden a seasoned orator.

This is where Palin’s interviews with Couric may actually play to her advantage. While the Alaska governor appears to have trouble working without a script, she has also established a low bar for success. If Palin can present the same poised and likable persona she showed at the Republican convention last month, much of the damage her image has suffered could be alleviated.

Conversely, Biden could find himself in a snake pit. If Palin is as uncertain with facts as she was in the Couric interview, the temptation will be great for Biden to pounce, taking advantage of his command of the record. But the loquacious Biden also risks being seen as condescending. And if Palin exceeds expectations, Biden could perform better and still not be deemed the “winner.”

If Biden is to attack someone, it will have to be McCain, and Biden will have to make that case to America, not direct it at Palin. Body language will be key; he can’t seem to be a bully.

If Palin adopts a harder edge, that may free Biden up a bit to battle back with ferocity. But he can’t be drawn into trading barbs with her.

While controversy has surrounded Palin, Biden has also suffered a rough month. He showed up Tuesday here at a mom-and-pop diner, shaking hands with customers. But the public appearance was part of a recent pattern that has largely seen Biden restricted to situations where he can’t talk off the cuff.

Biden made gaffes all through September—saying that Hillary Clinton would have made a better running mate, differing with Obama on several issues, suggesting that television had been in use in the early 1930s.

Perhaps as a consequence, Biden has not held a news conference in three weeks, despite his usual reputation for accessibility. Nor has he held a so-called “town hall” event where he takes unscripted questions.

Instead, he has developed a sharp-elbowed attack speech, centered around criticizing McCain. Over the weekend, campaigning with Obama, Biden opened on the negative and stayed that way.

“God love John (it’s always John, never Sen. McCain),” Biden said Sunday, “but I cannot think of a single policy position where he is different from George Bush.”

Expect more of the same on Thursday. Biden will seek to attack McCain, bolster Obama and talk past Palin.

And no one, at this point, knows what to expect from Palin.

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