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Analysis: Vice Presidential Debate

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Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Associate Editor
Thursday, October 2, 2008; 10:30 PM

Washington Post associate editor Robert G. Kaiser was online Thursday, Oct. 2 at 10:30 p.m. ET to critique the performances of Sen. Joe Biden and Gov. Sarah Palin in their vice presidential debate.

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The transcript follows.

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Robert G. Kaiser: Good evening. I have to say at the outset, this was really fun. I love the fact that a political event could create real excitement. I certainly felt it tonight.

This debate followed three dreadful weeks for Sarah Palin -- she was not starting afresh here. So an important question is, did her performance tonight add gravitas to her public persona? Did she come out of this debate looking more like a political heavyweight than she did on CBS News in the past two weeks, or on "Saturday Night Live"? After this debate, does she look more like a plausible president?

Was it smart of her handlers to encourage her to call Obama naïve and dangerous by proposing to deal directly, diplomatically, with dictators? Does she sound like an expert judge of such matters?

No doubt she reminded some of the people who were enthusiastic about her selection as McCain's running mate of what they liked about her. We saw again the feisty, smiling, engaging Sarah Palin tonight. She probably re-invigorated the Republican base ... but did she make progress with the independents, who -- the polls indicate -- turned sharply against her during September? I certainly don't know, and I eagerly await the evidence we'll get in the days ahead.

This was first of all Palin's night, her big test, and I hope you'll tell me how you think she did. But it was also a test of Joe Biden, famous for long-windedness, master of the gaffe on many previous occasions. I covered the Senate 30 years ago, when Biden was young and green, and I've watched him ever since. For me he had a good night tonight -- disciplined, on-message, and effective in criticizing John McCain. He did show gravitas, I thought -- the benefit of three decades in the Senate. But, as always, my reactions are insignificant -- what were yours?

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Philadelphia: Bob, the thing I noticed most with Gov. Palin was that her answers generally were acceptable, but she acted as though she was reading from a script, i.e. her answers often had nothing to do with the question she was asked, and she just recited talking points.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this. I welcome such comments from everyone, and will post as many as I can.

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Minneapolis: Ms. Ifill was a terrible moderator -- her questions were not crisp, there was no follow-up, no control. The entire event made a mockery of the concept of a "debate." Your thoughts?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think you're being too harsh, but I agree that she didn't have full control.

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Ottawa, Ontario: She was totally incoherent in those interviews. Tonight she was talking in sentences and sounding frightening faux-reasonable. What happened? Will her performance play to the "heartland"?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this. What happened, I think, was that she realized she could ignore questions and say what she had practiced saying, which she did.

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I couldn't bear to watch...: Summary please? Thank you.

washingtonpost.com: Biden and Palin Square Off On The Economy and Foreign Policy (washingtonpost.com, Oct. 2)

Robert G. Kaiser: Read the story...

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Boston: Palin said nothing concrete. She couldn't produce any evidence and avoided answering questions that she struggled with. I think Biden won the debate hands down.

Robert G. Kaiser: I think this was a significant shortcoming in her performance. There were no real arguments from her, many assertions.

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London: Mr. Kaiser, I stayed up way past my bedtime to listen to this debate, and what I heard was not reassuring. I'm sure you know that Europe is appalled at the choice of Gov. Palin as Sen. McCain's running mate, and nothing she said tonight is going to change this view. I'm sure she's a lovely person who would make a lovely neighbor, but she's simply not qualified to be president. We still are having major problems with your re-election of the current president, but this would make things substantially worse.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for staying up and sharing your sense of it. You will see, in my opening comment above, that I too wonder if she reassured people who already had doubts about her.

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Washington: Bob, do you think Gwen was a little cowed by the early criticism that she was in the tank for Obama? So many of Biden and Palin's responses begged for follow-ups, but there was really nothing.

Robert G. Kaiser: I know Gwen, who used to work at The Post, and I am confident she was not cowed.

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Reston, Va.: Biden had the right touch -- not terribly dominant, but aggressive enough to deflect Palin's punches. What about his choke? Do you think this would be seen as favorable or unfavorable?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. Lord knows how the choke played. I think it seemed very real.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Answering questions as she felt like it -- dangerous strategy or brilliant spoiler? Will the voters buy into that kind of evasion?

Robert G. Kaiser: Good question.

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Grand Rapids, Mich.: To me, Sarah Palin was blah. Talking points, no real substance -- very disappointing. I ended up liking Biden, which was pretty shocking. He seemed pretty straight.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Bethesda, Md.: This says more about me than about the debaters, but I'm a little disappointed that I thought they both did fine. No major gaffes or blunders. Sen. Biden stuck to the point more than usual. I don't think Gov. Palin changed many minds, but she didn't come across as a fluffy airhead the way she did in the Couric interviews. Everyone who was waiting for something major now has to wait longer (this is not necessarily a bad thing).

Robert G. Kaiser: What does it say about you? That you're fair-minded? Not an egregious sin.

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Athens, Ga.: I thought they both did well. I was impressed. Now, if only the presidential candidates were watching, and show the same passion and skill as these two.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Blairsville, Pa.: Did you get the feeling that Sarah Palin really didn't answer many of the questions she was asked? She danced around many questions and kept referring back to Alaska and energy, even if she wasn't asked anything that had to do with energy.

Robert G. Kaiser: Yes, if we read the transcript tomorrow, we will see how often Palin did her own thing, without being intimidated by the actual content of the questions. This is a tried-and-true debate tactic; candidates have used it for as long as we have had debates. Does it work?

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Phoenix: I am a Republican, so please factor that into my comments. I just want to say that I am very, very proud of Sarah Palin tonight. After the tough couple of weeks that she's had, I thought it showed real guts to put in such a strong performance. She certainly removed any lingering doubts I had about voting for John McCain in November.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this.

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Washington: Bob, do you think there was any kind of game-changer tonight, or did both sides do what they needed to do and that was it?

Robert G. Kaiser: No game-changer. I think it's important to recognize that the game has turned against McCain since the financial crisis burst upon us. His decision today to give up on Michigan was a very telling moment in this campaign, and an ominous sign, as The Fix has said already. I hope we can link to him here.

My sense is that Palin did not really "do what she needed to do" tonight, because I doubt that she managed to radically alter perceptions of her in this debate. But I could be wrong!

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washingtonpost.com: The Fix: McCain's Move Out of Michigan, and What It Means (washingtonpost.com, Oct. 2)

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Ottawa, Ontario: "What happened, I think, was that she realized she could ignore questions and say what she had practiced saying, which she did." Actually, someone who debated her in Alaska said that's what she did there. ... What I'm wondering is if the, urk, Joe Six-Pack will see that or will buy the illusion of straight-talking. I guess we'll see...

Robert G. Kaiser: Yes we will.

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New York: As for the negatives: Biden seemed less energetic but progressively warmed up. Some of his responses were data-heavy. He did have some poignant statements, particularly when he spoke about his background/family and his connections with ordinary citizens.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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New York: Transcript, please. I'd like a word count on Sarah Palin's use of "also."

washingtonpost.com: We'll have a transcript -- interlaced with video clips and point-by-point analysis -- on the site tomorrow morning, at this Web page.

Robert G. Kaiser: I too look forward to the transcript. Here's where to find it -- in the morning.

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Sterling, Va.: My goodness, Palin's delivery is one big run-on sentence. Anyone have a count how many times she completed each statement with the word "also"? I'm embarrassed that a major political party thinks it can trot out someone so inexperienced.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Washington: Palin did not look like an idiot. Biden did not look like a condescending jerk. Hooray, everyone's a winner! I hate how completely scripted and practiced this entire thing has become. The president of the United States does not always get to practice for days to answer questions. I want to know how these people will act in a crisis, not how they will read the State of Union.

Robert G. Kaiser: Good comment -- thanks.

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Liberty, Mo.: Who was Gov. Palin trying to attract through her references to Ronald Reagan? What do you make of her interpretation (flexibility) of the vice president's role? I am not a Palin supporter. I didn't hear much substance in her remarks this evening.

Robert G. Kaiser: Reagan is an icon for Republicans -- not, interestingly, for others, according to polls now.

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Atlanta: As a teacher, Gov. Palin's answers reminded me of one of the problems with No Child Left Behind. Some teachers will teach the answers to the test. It seems as though this was a test for her. She memorized answers, but it was for the wrong version of the standardized test. That did not seem to stop her from reciting the answers she memorized.

Robert G. Kaiser: Pointed comment! Interesting, too.

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Chantilly, Va.: Meh. They both seemed to do okay, and they both mostly just played to their respective strengths. It is hard to see this changing the race in any significant way.

Robert G. Kaiser: I think you're right, and I think that's bad news for the Republicans.

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Santa Rosa, Calif.: She's got moxie and confidence in spades -- I'll give her that -- but otherwise seems mostly bluster and bluff and not a lot of real substance based on lengthy experience. One thing I noted that was good: She looked directly at the camera as though addressing each of us. It appears Bidden picked up on this and followed suit -- good move.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. Good observations, though it seemed to me that Biden also was looking at the camera a lot from the first minutes of the debate.

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Cedar Rapids, Iowa: I think Palin benefited from the format of the debate -- there was not much opportunity for follow-up questions. Her comment on the "flexibility" of the office of vice president was really frightening; I hope she is asked to elaborate on what she meant. Biden started out strong, but got a little emotional and negative at the end, which probably hurt him a little.

Robert G. Kaiser: We have a lot of good arm-chair pundits tonight. Thanks.

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Plano, Texas: I was wondering if you noticed Biden's significant usage of the word "I." I feel as if he came off as arrogant and condescending. Do you think that Obama and Biden's main downfall is Biden's ego? Thanks for your thoughts!

Robert G. Kaiser: Anyone running for president or vice president has a huge ego -- this is one of the key lessons I have taken from my 45 years in the newspaper business and watching these people run. I don't think there's any "downfall" here.

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Alexandria, Va.: As an Obama supporter, I was relieved at Biden's performance tonight -- he was disciplined, serious and human. I was grudgingly impressed with Gov, Palin. Win or lose in November, she has a future in national Republican politics.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Hamburg, Wis.: Biden looked like a tired, old man.

Robert G. Kaiser: I think Biden and I are almost exactly the same age, so I am going to withhold any comment on this one.

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Anonymous: Mr. Kaiser: If Iran or North Korea ratchets up the conflict and Palin doesn't know the answer, she can't decide not to deal with the problem (answer the question) and say "I know energy." Does ignoring debate questions mean she'll ignore future problems?

Robert G. Kaiser: No it does not. She had a very specific assignment from her handlers tonight -- stay on message, mention McCain as often as possible, attack the Democratic ticket and avoid any topic that makes you uncomfortable. I'd bet those were key ingredients in her instructions, and I think she followed them.

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New York: I am a Democrat, but I thought both candidates did well. They both attempted to and succeeded in addressing the concerns of their respective parties. What I can't get a sense of is which of the two candidates will appeal to independents. I would love to hear the opinion of that elusive group.

Robert G. Kaiser: CBS had a group of uncommitted voters, including a disproportionate number of people who said they had a slight preference for Obama-Biden, watching tonight with those gizmos that register their reactions. According to this group, Biden won the debate.

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Vallejo, Calif.: The things Palin pushed hardest -- continued presence in Iraq, drilling our way out of the energy crisis -- are positions the voters already have decided aren't working. Too much of what she had to say was clearly scripted and often pulled out of a bag of answers like refrigerator magnets and stuck on the screen regardless of the question.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thank you, Vallejo.

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McLean, Va.: First, I hated the format, which turned the first half of the debate into a muddled mess ("I want to go back to the last question before I answer this one") and kept things at a pretty superficial level. I think Palin did fine if you didn't actually listen to her answers. I also think she'll get clobbered by Tina Fey this week on Saturday Night Live for the winks and the "darn rights." I personally think it's a sad day for our democracy when people are impressed with a vice presidential candidate because they're spunky, decide not to answer the questions asked of them or plan to avoid "the filter of the media." But maybe I just expect a little too much of our elected officials.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this. As today's good story on disquiet among voters about Palin made clear, a lot of people have higher expectations for their leaders. As you'll read here, our new poll shows that by 60 percent to 35 percent, Americans do not think she has the experience needed to be an effective president. Tina Fey had something to do with this, of course, but Palin herself had more to do with it, I suspect.

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washingtonpost.com: Skepticism of Palin Growing, Poll Finds (Post, Oct. 2)

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San Diego: So who won? The Drudge Report says 75 percent Palin; MSNBC says 78 percent Biden. Where's the middle ground?

Robert G. Kaiser: "Winning" is not a clear-cut concept in these debates. Look at last Friday: the pundits seemed to share a strong consensus that the Obama-McCain debate was a tie; some thought McCain prevailed. But all the polling I've seen this week suggests that Obama not only won the debate but did his campaign a great deal of good (with help of course from the financial crisis) by his performance on Friday.

So, be patient. It will take a few days at least to get a clearer sense of who won -- and more importantly how big an impact the debate had.

To repeat myself, the only big impact I think is possible here would be if Palin was able to substantially change that 60-35 conclusion that she isn't ready to be president.

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Brisbane, Australia: I thought that Gov. Palin did very well in the debate by appealing to the emotional side of Americans. But is this enough? Was there any substance in her answers?

Robert G. Kaiser: Appealing to the emotions is not enough, I suspect, but nor can I be certain that that's all she did.

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Regina, Canada: How can Palin emphasize her so-called energy expertise while suggesting that you don't really need to know what caused climate change in order to fix it? Her answer to this issue, and to the few other issues that she actually did address, were wishy-washy -- and if boiled-down, empty. Biden was dry and fact/number/data-heavy as mentioned, and while most people won't understand every issue he touched on, at least he came across as being informed and knowledgeable.

If we have indeed entered an era where the average person can't be expected to understand all the issues facing the country, we need to at least be able to leave the big decisions to people who do. I think Biden comes across as someone who gets it, while Palin comes across as someone who barely understands the big issues any better than any other average American. Any hockey mom with a college education could have done as well with the coaching Palin's had.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for an interesting comment.

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Germantown, Md.: I got to know Sen. Biden better, and appreciated the chance. I thought Gov. Palin did far better on foreign policy questions than Tina Fey led me to believe she would; I'm sure the debate tactics contributed to that, but I thought she showed well. They both scored points with me with their economy answers. I have to say, I'm still undecided.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this.

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Alexandria, Va.: Wow! Gov. Palin had a remarkable debate -- honest, homespun (ooh, that is a big negative among those with gravitas, but I like it). I wish she were the presidential nominee and McCain the running mate. Oh well, far better than an angry old man (I am one, so I know one) as vice president and an inexperienced, say-anything-to-get-elected newbie. I would be totally comfortable with Gov. Palin as president after hearing this debate. She is likely to listen to advisers and take a reasoned approach to problems. Obama is likely to think he has all the answers (watch his debate performance) and run us off the road into disaster. Go Sarah!

Robert G. Kaiser: "Wow!" is right.

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Weston, Conn.: Why is it that Gov Palin and Republicans believe that her experience in a state with a smaller population than Hartford, Conn., and no tough budget decisions, is relevant? Joe talking about family touched my heart -- that was the most real moment of the whole debate.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thank you, Weston.

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Toronto: I thought Biden was irked by the constant needling at his record, and talked a little fast, which undermined the gravitas factor. Palin seemed unusually polished early on, but had rather a weak finish, practically disappearing into rote script, especially considering the Biden choke-up. I was disappointed that Biden rarely responded to her, but instead focused on McCain; I've experienced a rare sense of schadenfreude in the past five weeks at the Republican ticket's expense and I was hoping that it would reach its zenith with this debate.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Columbia, S.C.: Bravo, Sarah Palin! She was quite effective in showcasing Biden and Obama as Washington insiders and she and McCain as Washington reformers. Her "say it ain't so, Joe" made Biden look ineffective in trying to associate McCain with Bush. Actually, Biden looked as if he was quite charmed by her in the way he smiled at her.

Robert G. Kaiser: I bet you a dime that Biden practiced that smile all week long.

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Puckeridge, England: To aid Sarah Palin: Experience in foreign affairs isn't really necessary. What did John McCain learn from all those trips abroad and all those meetings with foreigners? He still didn't know enough not to vote to go to invade Iraq.

Robert G. Kaiser: Hmmm.

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For what it's worth: Watching the CNN coverage with their tracking of a handful of undecided voters, when Palin talked about Iraq and winning there, the line was dead flat. No response. When Biden talked about Obama having the only real plan for getting us out of Iraq, the responses went off the charts in a positive direction. I hope the pundits keep this in mind -- that much of the American public have given up on Iraq. They want out.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. The CBS group reacted similarly. I think your point is an important one.

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Portland, Ore.: What is your reaction to Palin's comment that she "wasn't necessarily going to answer the questions in the way that Gwen or Sen. Biden wanted her to"? I think there is something to be said for following the rules of a debate. While both vice presidential candidates seemed to stick to their time limits, only Biden seemed to truly answer the questions directly and with substance.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this. I too remarked on that answer, which was obviously a bit of preemptive defense. She and her handlers knew from the outset what she was supposed to say, and she planned to say it whether or not it answered Ifill's questions -- or so it seemed. And as I said earlier, this is hardly a new debate tactic.

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Bethesda, Md.: Did I hear correctly? Did she say the Constitution left room for interpretation of the vice president's role; that she did not disagree with Cheney's assertion that he was not necessarily part of the executive branch?

Robert G. Kaiser: Yes you did.

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Addison, Ill.: Haven't even the undecideds heard these talking points already? Was there anything that she said that was memorable as a game-changer? Any new points? Or have I just heard everything because I'm a news junky?

Robert G. Kaiser: As I said earlier, I saw nothing remotely like a game-changer here tonight. But that's a lot to ask of a vice presidential debate.

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Dallas: I thought she was struggling mightily, but her ability to continue to spout those talking points covered it somewhat. I laughed when she messed up one of them, "toxic mess on Main Street that is affecting Wall Street." And her reference to long-dead Civil War general McClellan was rather entertaining. But, as Maura Liasson said it on Sunday (Fox News, no less), anything more than "babbling incoherently" for her was a success.

Robert G. Kaiser: You misunderstood McClellan, who is our general today in Afghanistan. No relation to Lincoln's McClellan I don't think.

I don't think I agree with Maura -- Palin is in a deep hole now, as most Americans don't think she is qualified to be president. To do well tonight she had to change that perception. As I've said, I don't know if she did that, but I tend to doubt it.

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Seattle: As a woman, I think Biden handled his interactions with Palin really well and struck just the right tone -- not condescending, not overly cautious. The smile was genuine, I think! He spoke to her a long time after the debate, when the families were on stage -- I wonder what they talked about. She listened, but didn't engage as much as he did.

Robert G. Kaiser: I agree with you, and suspect that Obama and his inner circle are very relieved. Their guy did not fall into the many pitfalls that, theoretically at least, were in his path.

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Madrid, Spain: It is incredible that we still do not have an answer from McCain or tonight from Palin about whether they will talk to the Spanish government if elected. It is scary what type of foreign policy will emerge from a McCain-Palin administration. If you cannot talk to a EU nation and a NATO member, how in the heck are you going to start using diplomacy with countries like Iran?

Robert G. Kaiser: In fairness, McCain has made it clear that he muffed that question and didn't mean to rule out meeting with your prime minister. But he couldn't come right out with a confession of error either.

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Fairfax, Va.: How hard do you think Biden was biting his tongue when Palin referred to the commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan as McClellan, instead of McKiernan -- not once, but twice?

Robert G. Kaiser: Well, I just made the same mistake above! Sorry about that.

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Florence, Mass.: I think Palin was a little too flip with her "[aw shucks] we made some blunders in Iraq." Obviously, those blunders cost lives. Her folksiness can backfire on her if she isn't careful.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Scotland: She put me in mind of a female version of Peter Sellers in the movie "Being There."

Robert G. Kaiser: I'd say that's most unfair -- Sellers barely spoke a word in that part, if memory serves (and perhaps it doesn't, I should admit, but I'm pretty sure of this). She did not lack for words.

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New York: Am I alone in finding it ominous that Gov. Plain was not able to cite a single occasion on which she fundamentally changed the way that she thought about an important issue?

Robert G. Kaiser: Don't know how much company you have, but I have a powerful hunch that all we really learned from that answer is, it was a question that Palin's trainers had not anticipated, so she had nothing ready to use to answer it.

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Boston: The aren't-I-adorable voice that Palin got whenever she started getting out of her depth was extremely annoying to me. Luckily, I was also watching CNN's gizmo lines and was happy to see the panel agreed.

Robert G. Kaiser: Nothing like finding your own views confirmed, is there?

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Las Vegas: I'm disappointed that Biden didn't mention that McCain wants to tax employees for insurance benefits paid by their employers. This is a huge tax for all working people at the same time McCain wants to give huge tax breaks for corporations and rich people. If he mentioned it, I apologize, but I did not catch it.

Robert G. Kaiser: Well he did mention it, in some detail.

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State College, Pa.: I'm a registered independent leaning toward Obama ... if I had any questions, this solidified it for me. Palin said both she and McCain are "mavericks" -- I don't think we need both the president and vice president shooting from the hip. I think that Biden showed that Obama/Biden is a much safer choice -- especially when I have a 2-year-old boy whom I don't want to have to send to Iraq in 18 years!

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Portland, Ore.: Did Sarah Palin really say to a guy whose first wife died in an accident that his second wife's "reward is in heaven"?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think she was using an old saying about our underpaid teachers (like Jill Biden), whose rewards on this earth are rather paltry...

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State College, Pa.: I think that they both did rather poorly. Biden made several blatant lies about Iraq and clean coal, but he had more "real" responses than Palin (I particularly liked his response about Pakistan). Both candidates, in my mind, spent too much time reiterating their stump speeches. I felt like I heard about an hour of fluff, and then 20-30 minutes of real interesting stuff.

Robert G. Kaiser: Okay.

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Washington: As one who was hoping Gov. Palin would fall on her face (again), I have to note that she did all right, though her importuning appeals to the "American people," as she kept saying, were equal parts bluster and folksy maneuvering. It pains me to realize that her folksiness probably plays well to many voters. As for me, I just wonder why she can't enunciate the "g" that ends her participles, and why she can't segment thoughts into sentences that begin and end.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Arlington, Va.: I think one of the greatest failures of Palin's answers tonight was when asked if, with the change in the economy, there was anything that has been promised by the campaign that might need to be reconsidered. First off she tried to avoid the question, but wasn't allowed -- but to flat out say we wouldn't have to change anything is a dangerous answer. She could have talked about reprioritizing, etc. -- something aside from nothing.

Robert G. Kaiser: Given that that was Jim Lehrer's first question last Friday, I was surprised she didn't have an answer ready for it -- as Biden did.

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Cheshire, Conn.: Is it me or did Sarah Palin not understand what "Achilles Heel" means? Not your positive attributes, your negative ones.

Robert G. Kaiser: We have to check the transcript, but I had the same reaction you did. She also, I think, misunderstood Gwen's question about nuclear weapons.

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Los Angeles: I have the feeling that a lot of people made up their minds in the past ten days, to the detriment of the McCain campaign. Palin didn't go down in flames, but her performance was still like a caricature of herself. She showed she can spew talking points, but not that she can think on her feet. Biden wins.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thank you. Interesting comment.

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Nashville, Tenn.: Palin held her own -- not a lot of substance, but then again I'd like the McCain strategy for change even if a monkey was preaching it. It's time for a change, and Biden's not it. I'll take real-life experience and common sense over political experience any day. It's time to take the politicians out of politics and put in people who know what they're doing (or at least know how to find and ask people who do).

Robert G. Kaiser: Pardon me if this seems rude -- I of course don't know you from Adam or Eve -- but this kind of remark drives me crazy. Why should politics not be practiced by politicians? Why should we think that "political experience" is a bad thing for a politician to have? Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were politicians; Abe Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt were too. This is a fact; governments are run by politicians. If they hadn't had extensive political experience, our country in all likelihood would not be anything like what it is today. Or so it seems to me.

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Flower Mound, Texas: Do you think the greatest success for both of them was in following the first rule of "first, do no harm"?

Robert G. Kaiser: Yes, but as indicated above, I think Palin had to do a lot more than that to help her ticket tonight.

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Anonymous: How many questions are you receiving tonight?

washingtonpost.com: About 600 so far.

Robert G. Kaiser: Here's the answer from my estimable producer, Chris Hopkins.

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Chicago: I'm one of those students watching for extra credit that Palin spoke of. Palin spent the majority of the time defending McCain (rather than on the offensive side) and evading questions. This is a matter of business, and she didn't provide viewers with anything substantial. She may be feisty, but I wouldn't call her the pit bull America needs to run the country.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. I hope you get an A.

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Kansas City, Kan.: My elementary school boys (who have signed up for a debate club and watched the debate) were shocked and dismayed at Sarah Palin's use of colloquial slang "darn it," "doggone it," "heck" (these are words they are taught not to use even in regular speech)! I am left with an image of her rolling her eyes and saying "there you go again, Putin." Eye-rolling is considered rude by most families I know, and it saddens me that this kind of behavior is legitimized in a national debate. I fail to understand how her unprofessional demeanor passes for good style.

Robert G. Kaiser: What an interesting comment. Thank you for it. You remind us all how diverse a country we live in. Obviously, the McCain aides prepping Palin tonight told her to do just what annoyed you.

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Los Angeles: My guess is that Palin's quip about teachers' reward being in heaven will be featured in an Obama ad pointing out that improving our education system starts with rewarding teachers better here on Earth.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Arnold, Md.: Some noticed, as I did, that Palin occasionally referred to her notes; however Biden did about the same amount of note-reading.

Robert G. Kaiser: Under the rules, I believe, neither could bring notes into the debate, so the notes referred to were made while it was going on.

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Cartersville, Ga.: Bob, I have been glancing at several of the large newspapers and their stories. Most of them mention that Palin seemed to hold her own. However, when I read some of the online conversations like this one, it sounds as though people felt that she provided canned answers and/or didn't answer questions at all.

Robert G. Kaiser: I haven't been able to read the stories, but I refer again to the "heavyweight" evaluation of the McCain-Obama debate on Friday, which I thought was wrong then, and which I think polls now confirm was wrong. Obama won the debate and did himself a lot of good, though the stories called it a tie and a lot of pundits thought McCain won.

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New Orleans: How could the moderator get Palin to actually answer the questions (really answer what she is asked)?!

Robert G. Kaiser: This will be the last one tonight. We'll be back next Tuesday for the next Obama-McCain encounter.

These debates are seriously imperfect. Gwen had no good choices when the candidates wandered off the reservation. There was an agreement on "five minute segments"; I suspect it was violated more often than it was respected. But only by making a real pain in the neck of herself could she have "forced" answers to her questions, and that is simply not her style.

Sometimes I wish we could import some of the BBC's splendid inquisitors to anchor a debate here. I nominate James Naughtie, my favorite, who is merciless when questioning British politicians on his "Today" show every morning on BBC radio. By comparison, our media are a tribe of wimps -- polite wimps to be sure, but, well, less interesting.

Again, thanks for the good participation from all. Good night.

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