The Uplifting Debate
ST. LOUIS -- The McCain campaign, perhaps fearful of the reviews that Sarah Palin would receive for her part in Thursday night's debate here, deployed a trio of almost-vice-presidential candidates to convince reporters that she had passed her big test. Rudy Giuliani was in one corner of the "spin" room, Joe Lieberman in another and Lindsey Graham in a third. All three are favorites of John McCain and conceivably could have wound up on his ticket, had he not been captivated by the governor of Alaska.
As it turned out, the effort was not needed. Palin did just fine on her own, and so did Joe Biden, her sparring partner and the veteran senator from Delaware. In fact, the surprise of the night was that the candidates for the No. 2 job were much livelier and more impressive on the Washington University stage than Barack Obama and McCain had been when they met at Ole Miss.
In a session that was faster-paced and friendlier than the presidential debate, Palin and Biden smiled often at each other while exchanging glances and verbal blows. It was a reminder that politics can be fun -- as well as informative.
But it created a mystery of its own. Why in the world has the McCain campaign kept Palin under wraps from her debut at the Republican National Convention until this debate? What were they afraid of?
I asked that question of Steve Schmidt, the McCain campaign manager, and he disputed the premise. Schmidt said that Palin has answered "hundreds" of questions -- which will come as news to the reporters who have been traipsing around the country with her. Going into the debate, she had done exactly three television interviews -- with ABC, CBS and Fox -- and not held a single news conference.
Graham, who has traveled the world with McCain and knows him as well as anyone, was more forthcoming when I put the question to him. "I think they thought she needed time for briefings on the issues that were new to her," he said. But then he added: "This campaign will go down in history as stupid if they don't unleash her now."
That is an understatement. McCain has been battered in the past two weeks by the collapse of big chunks of the American economy. His effort to get out in front of the wreckage by suspending his campaign and returning to Washington backfired when House Republicans balked at endorsing the administration's rescue plan.
Polls in half a dozen battleground states suddenly showed Obama with larger leads, and just hours before Palin and Biden took up their places, word circulated that McCain was pulling his ads out of Michigan, where he had hoped to make a stand.
If ever a candidacy needed bolstering, it was this one. And based on what she showed against Biden, Palin might be able to deliver some help.
Going into the debate, the fear among Republicans was that Palin would look as shaky as she did in some of her answers to Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson. Their hope was that Biden would overplay his hand and come across as a bully.
She wasn't shaky and Biden didn't bully.
Those of us who know and admire Joe Biden were happy that a big national audience got to see him at his best -- a sentimental, smart, decent and generous guy.
But he was no better than Palin. She appeared cool as a cucumber, comfortable with her talking points and unrattled by anything that was thrown at her.
My strong hunch is that these debates are not turning out to be defining events, in part because partisans of both sides can find genuine reason to think their favorites did well, but mainly because external forces -- especially the dramatic economic distempers -- are much more powerful than the words of the political players.