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Courting Middle-Class Voters

In the first and only vice presidential debate this election cycle, Sen. Joe Biden (D) and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) squared off in St. Louis, Mo., Thursday night with friendly but pointed exchanges on the economy, taxes and energy policy.

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By Robert Barnes and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 3, 2008

ST. LOUIS, Oct. 2 -- Republican Sarah Palin and Democrat Joseph R. Biden Jr. each sought to claim the mantle of "kitchen table" candidate in the first and only debate between the major-party vice presidential candidates last night, both arguing that their running mates better understand the concerns of middle-class Americans worried about the nation's faltering economy.

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On a night when presidential nominees John McCain and Barack Obama were relegated to the sidelines, Palin and Biden raced through a fast-paced debate that touched on same-sex marriage, the war in Iraq, and the nation's energy and foreign policies. Each escaped without major mishap, and Palin seemed to repair an image that had been damaged by recent media interviews and increasing public doubts about her readiness for the nation's No. 2 job.

From the opening moments of their highly anticipated 90-minute debate, each portrayed themselves as a voice for Middle America and attempted to make the case that their ticketmates are best prepared to bring change to Washington and the nation.

Palin, the first female governor of Alaska, referred to "average, middle-class families like mine," and in her first answer she suggested that the proper place to take the temperature of Americans' concerns about the economy would be at a Saturday-morning soccer game.

"Now, thankfully, John McCain has been one representing reform," Palin said. "People in the Senate, his colleagues" -- she turned to the senator from Delaware -- "didn't want to listen to him and wouldn't go towards that reform that was needed."

Biden trained his fire on McCain, noting that the senator from Arizona "two Mondays ago" claimed that the "fundamentals of the economy were strong."

He added: "That doesn't make John McCain a bad guy, but it does point out he's out of touch."

The debate, with its emphasis on quick answers and numerous topics, became a barrage of numbers and competing and conflicting visions of Obama and McCain.

Likely to be more lasting for viewers was the lack of obvious mistakes on either side, and an image of Palin that was more like the confident, smiling politician who burst onto the scene with a fiery speech at the Republican National Convention, and less like the stumbling candidate who has seemed ill prepared in a series of interviews broadcast recently with CBS News anchor Katie Couric.

She was respectful and cordial to Biden -- "Hey, can I call you Joe?" she asked when she greeted him onstage -- but quick to try to put him on the defensive about his past differences with Obama. "I watched all those debates," she said, referring to the Democratic primaries in which the two were rivals.

But the essence of the night -- and one of the major arguments of the campaign -- may have been illustrated by a long exchange after Biden said policies of the Bush administration have been an "abject failure."

"There's a time, too, when Americans are going to say, 'Enough is enough with your ticket,' on constantly looking backwards, and pointing fingers and doing the blame game," Palin said. "There have been huge blunders in the war. There have been huge blunders throughout this administration, as there are with every administration. But for a ticket that wants to talk about change and looking into the future, there's just too much finger-pointing backwards to ever make us believe that that's where you're going."


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