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Palin Gets Ready For Eagerly Awaited Debate With Biden

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin flew yesterday to Sedona, Ariz., where she will spend the next two days at Sen. John McCain's ranch preparing for Thursday's vice presidential debate, a potentially pivotal event in what has been a whirlwind since she joined the Republican ticket.

While Palin has become an instant celebrity and has energized many conservatives, she has also struggled through a series of unscripted moments and has been relatively absent from the campaign trail for much of the past week. Since meeting with foreign leaders in New York last week, she has held a handful of low-profile events and taken few questions.

Palin nevertheless remained a focus of the campaign after an uneven interview with CBS anchor Katie Couric that became a punch line on late-night comedy shows and led many to question whether she is qualified to lead the country. Some conservatives have called on her to drop out of the race for the good of the Republican Party, while others complain that the McCain campaign is unnecessarily protecting her from the media.

"Initially, I was pleased that John McCain chose a female," said Ellen Letowski, 57, a Republican who lives in Redding, Conn., and participated in a recent Washington Post poll. But, Letowski said, "I have a lot of reservations now, because I keep hearing she's not available to the media. I have a lot of reservations about her ability to step in and act as president."

Palin arrived on the national stage full of confidence, delivering a rousing acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention that translated into favorable poll ratings. Conservatives were particularly excited, exuding newfound enthusiasm for the Republican ticket and pledging to work hard for its election, while many women cheered the chance to vote for one of their own.

In a Sept. 7 Washington Post-ABC News poll, 58 percent of voters said they had a favorable impression of Palin, compared with 28 percent who said they held an unfavorable opinion. But in a Post-ABC poll two weeks later, positive impressions had dipped to 52 percent and negative views had climbed to 38 percent, as independent women shied away from her. Among such women, favorable views dropped from 65 percent to 43 percent.

Other polls have charted similar trends: A recent Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll found that Palin's unfavorable ratings have increased by nine percentage points and that the percentage of voters who feel uncomfortable with the idea of her as vice president rose by five points.

Pat Turner, 54, an independent in Bryant, Ark., who has not decided whom to support and participated in the Post poll, said she will be watching Palin closely during the debate to see if the governor can allay some of her concerns. "She doesn't have enough experience. Other than that, I don't have anything against her," Turner said, adding that in order to decide whether she is comfortable with the McCain-Palin ticket, "it will depend on what I see between now and November."

The McCain campaign harbors no such reservations, saying that Palin continues to appeal to voters.

"She's energized the entirety of our activist core -- moderates, conservatives -- across the spectrum," said political director Michael DuHaime. "Her effect on the ticket has been positive with moderates and conservatives. I think you're going to see that throughout the campaign, and until the end."

DuHaime added that the campaign has tripled its number of volunteer phone calls and door-to-door visits over the past three weeks.

When she holds rallies, Palin also continues to draw large crowds filled with enthusiastic supporters. Etta Fox, 74, a Republican from Vienna, Ohio, attended a recent campaign event to see the Alaska governor and McCain and wore a "You Go, Girl!" button as a sign of support. Noting that she was "kind of disappointed" in President Bush, Fox said she had faith in Palin: "She's going to be a reformer, just like McCain."

And Palin has maintained her command when delivering prepared remarks. Yesterday she told a crowd in Columbus, Ohio, that while the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., might be confident of winning Thursday's debate, "then again, this is the same Senator Biden who said the other day that the University of Delaware would trounce the Ohio State Buckeyes."

Off script, though, Palin has become increasingly tentative. Last week, when a member of the press pool asked Palin a question at the outset of a meeting she and McCain were holding with the presidents of Georgia and Ukraine, she looked to McCain, who shook his head, and she stayed silent.

Palin's recent interview with Couric showed the governor in an even less flattering light. When asked what she thought of the $700 billion Wall Street rescue proposal, Palin delivered a rambling reply that included this extended passage:

"But ultimately, what the bailout does is help those who are concerned about the health-care reform that is needed to help shore up our economy, helping the -- oh, it's got to be all about job creation, too, shoring up our economy and putting it back on the right track. So health-care reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to accompany tax reductions and tax relief for Americans. And trade, we've got to see trade as opportunity, not as a competitive, um, scary thing. But one in five jobs being created in the trade sector today, we've got to look at that as more opportunity. All those things under the umbrella of job creation. This bailout is part of that."

Her response has become instantly famous, and when comedian Tina Fey parodied Palin in a mock interview on "Saturday Night Live" last weekend, she quoted some of the passage verbatim, drawing laughter from the audience.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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