How They Can Win

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Post asked political analysts, pollsters and others what Joe Biden and Sarah Palin need to do in tonight's debate. Below are contributions from: Ken Duberstein, Carter Eskew, Lisa Schiffren, Robert Shrum, Ed Rogers, Jeremy Lott, Mary Beth Cahill, Michael Feldman, Greg Mueller, Douglas E. Schoen.

KEN DUBERSTEIN

White House chief of staff to Ronald Reagan; chairman of the Duberstein Group

This debate is 90 percent about Sarah Palin and 10 percent about Joe Biden. This is her SAT, not a pop quiz or a "gotcha" exam. Gov. Palin must seize the opportunity to speak compellingly about John McCain's vision on national security and economic policy, not in sound bites but in well-constructed, thoughtful paragraphs. This debate is not a forum for Alaska stories but for a McCain worldview, carefully articulated for the independent voter, not simply for the conservative base. Palin should not be an attack dog but should dissect the consequences of Barack Obama's promises. She should focus on Obama's vision and not on Joe Biden's record. She needs to grow before our eyes, in stature, soundness, judgment and temperament. Does she have the capacity to be next in line for the presidency -- that's the high hurdle she must clear.

CARTER ESKEW

Chief strategist for Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign

Too often, vice presidential candidates think that their debate is about them. Really, it's about the guy on top of the bumper sticker or, in this case, at the top of the polls. Obama has opened a meaningful lead, driven by the economic crisis. The election is now on his field of play. The debate should be all about Obama. Palin's job is to do what vice presidential candidates never want to do in a debate: the wet work of gutting the other party's presidential candidate. Repeatedly attacking Obama for being out of the mainstream may do nothing to advance her reputation, but it's the best way she can help stop Obama's rise and protect her own glaring weaknesses. Biden's job is to reassure voters that Obama has a clear sense of where he will take the country that comports with their values. In other words, do more forcefully what Obama did not do in the first debate.

LISA SCHIFFREN

Speechwriter to Vice President Dan Quayle; contributor to National Review Online's "The Corner" blog

Palin started strong but has become a lightning rod for liberal contempt. She needs to speak directly to viewers and address, obliquely, the criticisms of her qualifications and intelligence. She wins by demonstrating relevant experience, solid gut and inner steel. It should sound like this:

I am a mother of five, like the speaker of the House. And yes, I hunt. But my political qualifications stem from my political experience: I am a sitting governor. I was elected governor because I took on a corrupt political machine and sent fellow Republicans to jail, not because I am "cute." Like the other 49 governors, I am accountable for dozens of state agencies. I manage a workforce of tens of thousands. I run an entity with a budget in the hundreds of millions. What has Joe Biden managed? How many people are on his staff?

I do not have foreign policy experience. As Govs. Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan did, I will learn the names of foreign leaders and the conventions for discussing foreign policy. Here is what you need to know: My instincts are sound. Like John McCain, I recognize our adversaries for who they are. I can tell who the aggressor is in a conflict. I don't have a lot of patience for dictators, radical Islamic terrorists and leaders who threaten America or our allies. I am a fighter, and I will fight for you.

ROBERT SHRUM

Senior adviser to the Gore and Kerry presidential campaigns; fellow at NYU's Wagner School of Public Service

Palin has her marching orders: Don't answer the question that's asked but shift to attacks on Obama, Biden, the Washington elite and the "Bridge to Nowhere." After debate camp, she probably has 15 or 20 such deflections in the can, an easier task than filling in her chasm of substantive knowledge. And she has always her value-oriented homilies to fall back on.

The format is rigid, at the insistence of the McCain campaign, with no chance for the kind of back and forth in last Friday's debate. Biden won't strain to trip up Palin or take the bait when she assails his record. He has two strategic objectives: defend and advance Obama, and go after McCain. That's the choice in November, and even if Palin survives this encounter better than she did Katie Couric's interview, it won't matter that much if Biden has strategic focus and discipline. Palin may blow herself up, but Biden can't spend his time trying to light the fuse.

Moderator Gwen Ifill may play a decisive role. It was Sander Vanocur, a panelist from NBC News, who asked Nixon in 1960 why President Eisenhower couldn't name a single idea of Nixon's that he had adopted. Ifill can push past Palin's syntax-challenged generalities by pressing her instead of moving on to another issue. The right is attacking Ifill because she has a book coming out in January called "The Age of Obama" -- which is actually about the rise of a new generation of African American politicians. I have no doubt Ifill will be fair; I've watched her discomfort candidates on both sides, including mine. I don't know how tough she'll be -- and that will matter -- because Palin has to do more than meet the low expectations she's set. Voters want to measure whether she's up to the job; if they think she isn't, McCain's judgment will suffer another blow.

ED ROGERS

White House staffer to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; group chairman of BGR Holding

It's time for the McCain campaign to turn mama's picture to the wall and get rough. Palin needs to attack Obama for being the extreme liberal that he is. Attack, attack, attack. Ignore Biden and put the McCain campaign on offense. Republicans will love it and breathe a sigh of relief. Independents need to hear the truth about what a cliche orthodox leftist Obama is. She needs to attack, with ferocity, real facts and a smile. If this becomes a geography bee or a "name that foreign national anthem" show, we are in trouble.

Biden needs to say nothing -- a great challenge for him. It will be hard for him to show subtle expertise without looking smug, to flaunt his experience without talking too much. It is impossible for him to present himself as a credible agent of change. He should stay quiet and sit back while Obama allies in the media create a misstep and then take Palin apart in the coming days.

JEREMY LOTT

Author of "The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency"

Many pundits say Joe Biden and Sarah Palin need to appear "presidential" tonight and therefore less combative. The advice is high-minded but dead wrong. They're not running for president, and voters probably don't want another powerful vice president. The vice president was never supposed to be a chief operating officer but, rather, someone who would preside over the Senate in good times and step into the executive position if something awful happened.

Palin should be vicious. She needs to go after Barack Obama and his gaffetacular running mate with a ferocity that got her that "Barracuda" nickname, tearing into them on energy exploration, social issues, spending and their party's complicity in creating the economic conditions that helped cause our current market turmoil.

Palin needs to attack, full tilt, to help the Republicans get their groove back and to further her own political future. The Alaska governor could one day end up on the top of a Republican ticket, whether or not the GOP holds the White House this November. She won't get there by playing nice.

MARY BETH CAHILL

Manager of John Kerry's presidential campaign; former chief of staff to Sen. Edward Kennedy

Palin has an instinctive ease with television cameras and the ability to deliver a killer shot to her opponent. However, she has the higher bar to clear as a newcomer to international affairs with little experience of sustained discussion of America's diplomatic and economic place in the world. Viewers will judge her a success if she exhibits reasonable knowledge of our allies and the challenges that confront the nation without losing her composure.

Biden will achieve success by defending his running mate from every charge and by attacking McCain, not Palin. If he is concise and polite in this moment of maximum attention, he will vindicate Obama's choice of him as a running mate.

MICHAEL FELDMAN

Former senior adviser to Vice President Al Gore; founding partner of the Glover Park Group

Joe Biden's mission tonight: Don't screw it up. The economy has returned as the dominant issue, voters are paying attention and they like what they've been hearing from the Obama campaign. There is no doubt that Biden is qualified to be president, the single most important quality of a VP candidate, so he doesn't have anything to prove. He should answer the questions and let his knowledge and experience speak for themselves. His opponent still has a lot of work to do. He doesn't have to question her abilities; an increasing number of Americans are already doing that. To the extent that he directly engages her, it should be to remind voters that Palin and McCain are running to offer a third term of the Bush administration.

He should articulate his campaign's vision for change on the economic crisis to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- in other words, don't pass up this opportunity to remind voters what is at stake in this election -- defend his running mate from unwarranted attacks (there will be many) but stick to the substance and don't get drawn into personal attacks. This is not the time for point-scoring. The McCain campaign will be poised to jump on anything that gives it the opportunity to change the subject and distract the American people.

GREG MUELLER

Republican strategist; former senior aide to Steve Forbes's and Pat Buchanan's presidential campaigns; president of CRC Public Relations

If Biden does not achieve clear victory, Palin wins just by talking issues with a veteran Beltway politician. Palin must face down criticism that she does not have a command of the issues while maintaining the genuine, Washington outsider, reform image that makes her popular in the heartland. She can do this by going on offense on energy issues and the economy. She can define the Obama-Biden energy and economic programs as out of touch with working and middle-class Americans, who want drilling, lower taxes and fiscal responsibility. She can showcase her populist conservatism by articulating how the high-spending, high-tax Obama-Biden economic agenda fuels opportunity for corruption.

Joe Biden is simply the other character on the stage. He is a skilled debater and has a deep command of the issues, distinct advantages. His challenge is to showcase his experience -- the sole reason Obama chose him -- and try to trip up Palin without appearing patronizing or condescending.

DOUGLAS E. SCHOEN

Democratic pollster and author of "Declaring Independence: The Beginning of the End of the Two-Party System"

As smart and talented as Biden is, he invariably has to prove that he is the smartest guy in the room. He must hold this aspect of his persona in check and avoid at all costs appearing as though he is beating up on Palin.

His single greatest challenge will be to emphasize that he and Obama have the breadth and depth of vision to lead America out of the economic and foreign policy crises the country faces.

Palin must demonstrate that she is qualified to be president -- both by appearing to understand the country's domestic and international problems and by articulating clear policy prescriptions to address them. If she can connect with ordinary Americans the way that she was able to do in her convention speech -- something Biden has never been particularly successful at -- she can win.


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