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Saturday, October 4, 2008

Political analysts, pollsters and others assess Joe Biden's and Sarah Palin's performances. Here are contributions from: Robert Shrum, Lisa Schiffren, Douglas E. Schoen, Heather Higgins, Carter Eskew, Ed Rogers, Greg Mueller, Jeremy Lott.

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ROBERT SHRUM

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

Sarah Palin, tripping over her tongue in recent weeks, created record-low expectations for herself -- and a lot of the commentariat treated her survival as a triumph. But as we saw in the polls that hit just as the first round of punditry was ending, voters judge by a different and more serious standard than the hothouse construct of expectations. They ask if a candidate is up to the job; only 42 percent thought Palin was qualified to be president in the CNN survey, compared with over 80 percent for Biden. He won the debate, according to both the CNN and CBS polls, and by double-digit margins.

Why? While Palin was repeating memorized sound bites and folksy lines, she lost the economic argument and surrendered on health care, where she didn't even seem know basic facts about McCain's proposal (it would cost 5 million Americans the coverage they have now). Biden calmly stopped her cold when she ventured the McCain lies about Obama; he prevailed on the tax issue and repeatedly tied McCain-Palin to George Bush. He was the person on stage who displayed genuine emotion; she was all surface, no substance.

Coming on the heels of McCain's withdrawal from Michigan, Palin did nothing in the debate to salvage his fast-fading prospects. At least she didn't stumble off a rhetorical cliff and take him with her. But her performance, and that's what it was, was far from enough -- this combination of cute and cliche. She explicitly invoked Joe Six-Pack and the middle class, who promptly told the pollsters that she lost the debate.

LISA SCHIFFREN

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

Whew! You see political star power with your own eyes, then weeks of media hammering makes you doubt your instinct. Sarah Palin came back as a star, simultaneously down-to-earth and leader-like. Her confidence grew, she kept control of her answers, made necessary larger points and attacked effectively -- without rancor. I didn't love the populist "greed and corruption" take on the financial crisis -- but it's digestible, and it cuts into Democratic rhetoric on the matter.

Joe Biden was solid, unruffled and likable, though the cosmetic dermatology hurt more than helped. Thirty-five years of accumulated policy knowledge helps -- though he got a few key points wrong. He hit McCain more effectively than Palin hit Obama. Boasting about ideological tests for judges was cocky.

Palin pushed Biden effectively on his disagreements with Obama. Like her, he's courting Joe Six-Pack, who prefers winning in Iraq to Obama's cut-and-run. He resorted to misstating Obama's views on negotiations with dictators -- and didn't revise his earlier statement that Obama wasn't ready to be commander in chief.

Palin succeeded in speaking directly to working- and middle-class Americans, who are feeling pinched and ignored. Though Biden courted them hard, Palin connects more authentically, with shared locutions, inflections and recent experience. It remains to be seen if those voters want government out of the way or handing them new benefits.

DOUGLAS E. SCHOEN

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

Both Palin and Biden did what they had to do.

Palin proved that she could make a compelling argument for herself and was credible. If she didn't convince the American people that she is qualified to be president, she did at least prove that she is not completely out of place on a national stage. There were certainly no major gaffes.

That said, her main argument against Biden was hardly compelling. Elections are referenda on incumbents, and Palin probably did not convince many viewers that Biden was being unfair by looking backward to repeatedly criticize John McCain and his past support of President Bush's domestic and foreign policies.

For his part, Biden made the case that McCain has been a consistent supporter of Bush's extremely unpopular policies, and he almost totally avoided appearing verbose and pedantic. To be sure, through most of the debate he sounded like a Washington politician, but at a time when people are searching for answers from Congress, that is probably not all that bad.

Biden almost certainly won because he succeeded in driving the central message of the Obama campaign: that America must vote for a change from the failed Bush/McCain policies. By contrast, Palin was singularly unable to advance a coherent and compelling message.The available polling and focus groups bear these conclusions out: CNN polling shows that Biden won the debate by about 15 percent -- roughly the same margin by which polls suggested Obama bested McCain last Friday night. That same polling showed that Biden appeared more qualified by better than a 2-to-1 margin, while Palin was seen as more likable by close to one in five viewers.

HEATHER HIGGINS

Board member of the Independent Women's Voice

Midway through the debate, it was pretty clear which of the two candidates kills her own food. Refuting the post-Couric-interview wisdom that she was not ready for the big leagues, Sarah Palin was at ease, fluid and on offense.

In fact, she bypassed Bush and was channeling Reagan. Ronald Reagan reminded everyone that he'd paid for his microphone; Palin stated that she wasn't going to be told how to answer questions. He invented "there you go again" and she used it to similar effect. When frustrated that his arguments for tax cuts weren't getting through the media, Reagan went directly to the people; Palin asked for more debates if only so that she can talk in unedited and unfiltered ways (i.e., comin' at ya, Katie). The friendly zingers were all hers: admiring various aspects of Biden's record, but saying Obama was "a different story"; reminding viewers that she (read: unlike Michelle Obama) has always been proud of America; complimenting Biden for criticizing Obama's politicized votes.

She also did a better job of connecting. Biden tried to make out that he hung out at Home Depot; Palin was shouting out to the third-graders at Gladys Wood Elementary. The lifetime Washington insider shouldn't try to out-Main Street the former small-town mayor. Not happening.

One has to wonder, though, if as happened with the Kennedy-Nixon debates, there is a difference in perception between those who listened and those who watched. The camera loves Sarah Palin and she loves it. Those intimate winks to America, the smiles that anticipated another happy rapier thrust, that young, friendly, sincere and sexy vibe -- all contrasted with her arch-looking (and flustered) opponent. There was more than a whiff of Kennedy vs. Nixon. Who's the change agent now?

CARTER ESKEW

Chief strategist for Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign

No runs, no hits, no errors. This vice presidential debate, like most, will have no impact on the outcome in November. Highlights? 1. Joe Biden's personal moment at the end about being a single parent. 2. Sarah Palin's relentless cheery folksiness. Biden did his job: defining the race around who's better for the middle class. And Palin did hers by not embarrassing herself or her ticket. Bottom line: The debate was a tie, and a tie goes to the leader -- Barack Obama.

ED ROGERS

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

Palin cleared the bar. She had a good command of the facts, was likable and fun to watch. Her candidacy should not raise doubts or be a distraction. Republicans are relieved, and her presence on the campaign trail will be greeted with renewed enthusiasm. Now maybe she can give an interview that isn't a pop quiz but a legitimate inquiry into how she and John McCain might govern. The usual suspects in the media will surely find fault and not let up, but by any standard, Palin did better than hold her own.

Biden did fine: He didn't say anything bizarre, and there doesn't appear to be a need for any retractions or apologies.

These two are probably headed for the place where vice presidential nominees traditionally find themselves in October: electoral irrelevance. Neither will drive any new voters to their ticket, but they will reinforce the base votes of the presidential nominees.

GREG MUELLER

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

Palin showed why she is best in a live venue as opposed to taped interviews. She stepped into the ring with a 35-year veteran of Washington, who has deep knowledge of the issues, and went toe to toe. She put him on defense on issues including the economy, the war on terror and energy. Palin came out swinging, defining Obama and Biden as tax-and-spend liberals, showcasing her populist/reformer reputation, and demonstrating her experience and savvy dealing with energy and fiscal issues as governor. Palin was relaxed and on offense the entire debate.

One of Biden's goals from the outset was to appeal to working- and middle-class Americans, but as the debate wore on it was Palin who connected with Middle America as Biden found himself defending his and Obama's Senate voting records and their policy differences. Conversely, Palin used the few policy discrepancies between herself and John McCain, such as drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as an example of their maverick nature.

The governor used the venue as a foil to speak directly to the American people and show that she not only speaks Main Street but comes from Main Street. Biden did as expected, but Palin blew away expectations and made the sale. Palin wins.

JEREMY LOTT

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

Going into the debate, the expectation on foreign policy issues was that Sarah Palin would be out of her depth. Yet it was Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who seemed like he needed a life preserver. Biden's problem is that there are deep differences between his record and Barack Obama's on the most important policy issue of this election: the Iraq war. Obama was against it from the start. Biden was for it and then pushed the three-quasi-state (partition) solution that was rejected in favor of the surge, the approach that John McCain supported. "Your plan is a white flag of surrender in Iraq," Palin charged of Obama's proposal for a phased, timed withdrawal. Biden didn't mount an effective reply. My sense is that he didn't expect Palin to punch very hard on foreign affairs. What he got was a purse full of quarters aimed right his unnaturally white teeth.


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