A Political Debate With Two Scorecards

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 4, 2008

From the barking heads to the boisterous bloggers, from the Beltway elite to the heartland newspapers, a grand consensus quickly emerged about Sarah Palin's debate performance: She wasn't awful.

In fact, the opinion-mongers said, she was poised, charming and sooo much better than she had been in her interviews with Katie Couric that there almost seemed to be a collective sigh of disappointment at the absence of a train wreck. Couric set the tone on CBS by declaring seconds after the veep debate ended Thursday night that the Republican governor of Alaska "did not embarrass herself" against Sen. Joe Biden.

Why, then, did the quickie polls say Biden had won handily?

"Biden is clearly so much more knowledgeable, by a factor of about a million," says analyst Charlie Cook, a former high school debater. "But the expectations were that Biden would mop her up. The expectations for Palin were so low that she knocked it out of the ballpark. She was getting downright sassy."

How is it that one candidate gets to be judged by an artificial benchmark created by the very media "filter" that Palin criticized in the debate? That, says Time correspondent Karen Tumulty, explains the gap between the pundits and the people.

"People out there are watching and trying to imagine her as vice president and even president," Tumulty says. "With the media, we've been so obsessed with parsing and flyspecking these interviews the last few weeks. To compare her to a series of interviews in which she didn't do very well is not only a very low bar, it's not the way the rest of the country is looking at it."

Several journalists say moderator Gwen Ifill, whose objectivity had been challenged by conservatives because she is writing a book about Barack Obama and other black politicians, was eminently fair. But Cook says she was "lobbing softballs," and others say the PBS correspondent's lack of follow-up questions -- the kind that tripped up Palin in television interviews -- let both candidates skate. For instance, Ifill posed a general question about climate change rather than asking about Palin's past statements that human activity is not the cause.

"With so many questions raised about 'gotcha' journalism, largely by the McCain campaign, Gwen Ifill was never going to make those kinds of questions the substance of the debate," says Emily Rooney, the host of "Beat the Press" on Boston's WGBH-TV.

Palin criticized Couric's selection of questions yesterday in explaining why she looked uncomfortable. "The Sarah Palin in those interviews was a little bit annoyed," she told Fox News. "It's like, man, no matter what you say, you are going to get clobbered. If you choose to answer a question, you are going to get clobbered on the answer. If you choose to try to pivot and go to another subject that you believe that Americans want to hear about, you get clobbered for that, too."

On paper, the Democratic senator from Delaware scored more debating points in St. Louis. Palin frequently declined to respond to his criticisms of her running mate, John McCain, or the Bush administration's record, other than to accuse Biden of looking "backwards." She declared upfront that she wasn't necessarily going to answer Ifill's questions. And with her "darn right" and "doggone it" talk about "Joe Six-Pack," she smiled and winked her way to lots of positive reviews.

"Sarah Palin didn't freeze, she didn't make any major mistakes," said ABC's George Stephanopoulos.

"She's stopped that bleeding," said NBC's Andrea Mitchell.

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