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Palin Takes On A New Foe: Her Image

By Tom Shales
Friday, October 3, 2008

Sarah Palin looked as though she had prepared for her appearance at the vice presidential debate last night by studying Tina Fey's impressions of her on "Saturday Night Live." She twinkled and winked and piled on the perkiness, a "darn right" here and an "I'll betcha" there.

The challenge to Fey, who is scheduled to play the Alaska governor and Republican candidate again on the next "SNL" broadcast, will be to out-Palin Palin, to make the parody more outrageous than the original.

At the same time, Palin seemed determined to banish thoughts of her as airheaded and inexperienced; she was really debating her own public image rather than Sen. Joe Biden. She subverted the whole purpose of the exercise by merely repeating the key points of her running mate, Sen. John McCain, and ignoring questions that called for more specific answers.

People who came to the debate loving Sarah Palin probably went away from it loving her as much as ever. People who came to the debate hoping to see a fiasco, to see Palin make colossal gaffes, had to have been disappointed. She may have swayed a few "undecideds" her way with her mom-next-door demeanor and seemingly indomitable smile. There were mistakes here and there, but they were mostly minor -- but then, Palin's answers in the debate were more about herself than about the policies of McCain or George W. Bush or even the country's current economic crisis.

Palin scolded the Democrat from Delaware if he dared to mention the name of Bush, the similarities between Bush and McCain -- in terms of philosophy, voting record and approach to foreign policy -- or even to acknowledge the existence of the past eight years of Republican rule. "There you go again, pointing backward again," she said to Biden, imitating Ronald Reagan's famous "there you go again" rejoinder to Jimmy Carter in a 1980 presidential debate. She continued her smiling reprimand by using the phrase "now, doggone it," another of the folksy colloquialisms with which she (carefully?) seasons her speech.

"Sarah Palin was sensational tonight," roared Pat Buchanan in post-debate comment on the MSNBC cable network. "She regained that magic she had at the convention."

He may have gone too far -- it wouldn't be the first time -- but Buchanan was correct that Palin made and sustained very good eye contact with the camera. (Buchanan chided Biden for addressing himself mostly to the moderator, PBS's Gwen Ifill, though Biden also looked at Palin.)

MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow, one of the fastest-rising and most enigmatic personalities in talk television, listened patiently to Buchanan's praise for Palin's presentation and responded, "Boring but right versus exciting and wrong -- that's America's choice?" Commentators on many of the networks marveled at Palin's insistence on avoiding substantial comment on issues and on simply ignoring questions she couldn't answer convincingly.

Palin basically stated early in the debate that this would be her strategy. She said she wasn't necessarily going to respond to the questions of the moderator or charges from Biden, but instead, "I'm gonna talk right to the American people." Since this was billed as a debate, not a speech, her remark came across as arrogant, and as an admission she would duck tough questions.

Biden had many eloquent moments and spoke with conviction throughout, also being careful not to attack Palin and look like a big mean Beltway Bully. But after Palin had called McCain a "maverick" for maybe the 4,000th time, Biden had perhaps his finest moment, speaking loudly and emphatically when he said of the senator from Arizona, "He's been no 'maverick' on the things that matter to people's lives" and on "the things that people talk about around the kitchen table."

Virtually the only emotionally affecting moment in the debate came when Biden was talking about knowing the challenges of being a single parent. He choked up and briefly lost his voice when he spoke of not knowing if a child "is going to make it." In 1972, Biden's wife and daughter died in a car crash and his two sons were so badly injured that it was feared they would not survive, but they did.

Old charges against Sen. Barack Obama, Biden's running mate, were repeated by Palin and shot down again by Biden. At moments the debate seemed oppressively predictable. But even those who find Palin anything but an ideal choice to be vice president (an office she said should have more power), much less president of the United States, had to admit that those winks and twinkles are brought off with a certain style.

Tina Fey has her work cut out for her.

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