Even from the far away campus of Washington University, the sighs of relief from 's campaign headquarters in Virginia were almost audible. At the end of a high-stakes vice presidential debate, their candidate had passed - if not with flying colors, then at least with a solid grade.
The blank slate that Alaska Governor has remained for many voters since she was picked out of obscurity was filled in with surprising depth here tonight. After weeks of being sequestered from the media and a series of embarrassing stumbles in the interviews she did grant, Palin shared the stage with Democrat and his 36 years of experience in the United States Senate and, for the most part, held her own.
While there were two candidates on stage, all eyes were fixed squarely on the political newcomer who has energized McCain's presidential campaign at times, and threatened to help drag it under at others. She turned in a steady performance that should help stabilize a Republican Party that has displayed concern in some quarters about her selection.
Palin relied heavily on her campaign talking points, at times flatly ignoring the direct questions tossed her way. She signaled that would be her approach early on, when after being pressed about McCain's record on deregulation by Biden, she said, "I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record."
But, in the midst of growing questions about her base of knowledge, Palin proved herself to be a quick learner, if nothing else. She demonstrated an ability to thrust and parry on a variety of subjects, at times putting Biden on the defensive. And she did it with the folksy, hockey mom touch that played so well at the Republican convention, but seemed to be laid on a bit heavy for a one-on-one debate.
At times it was effective. At one point in the midst of a foreign policy discussion, Palin allowed, "it's so obvious I'm a Washington outsider. And someone just not used to the way you guys operate. Because here you voted for the war and now you oppose the war. You're one who says, as so many politicians do, I was for it before I was against it or vice-versa." But more often, with her facial expressions and aw-shucks asides (she even winked at the camera at least twice), it seemed out of place.
But Palin didn't need to hit this one out of the park, she just needed to be steady and mistake-free, and she largely succeeded.
If Palin was steady, Biden was strong. There aren't many who doubt the Delaware senator's knowledge on most issues but there have been nervous Democrats who worry about his tendency to go on for too long and step into gaffes in the process. He sometimes seemed conscious about those problem areas, mentioning twice that his allotted time was close to expiring, almost as if to remind himself to stop talking.
But Biden stuck to the Democratic script. He hammered away at McCain on taxes, on the Iraq war and on his connection to President Bush. Both candidates appeared genuinely impressed with one another and the senator avoided one big fear among his backers - coming across as condescending to Palin. Instead, the two all but tripped over one another to shovel out the compliments while keeping their heavy fire concentrated on the tops of the tickets.
And that's the major reason Biden walked away with the edge in this debate. He showed much more mastery on the issues, but that's not always a guarantor of success - just ask Al Gore. Biden's not-so-secret weapon is the fact that voters agree with Democrats on more of the issues than with Republicans, regardless of which candidate is doing the talking. Especially on the economy, the dominant issue of the day.
Not unexpectedly, strategists for both campaigns took to the "spin room" to underscore how pleased they were with their candidates. For Democrats, it was all about keeping the status quo in the campaign, which by all indications favors them.
"We've had two debates now," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe told reporters, "and I think Joe Biden talked a lot about how the middle class is being left behind and Governor Palin, just like John McCain Friday night, offered no new ideas, no real, clear sense of how things are going to change."
For Republicans, it was about Palin proving herself.
"Winning, for us... is to show that Sarah Palin is a together person who has the understanding of where Senator McCain wants to take the world and the ability to go to Washington to bring about change," South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said. And McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt said Palin did "a tremendous job" because "the American people got to see a Washington outsider who's ready to be Vice President of the United States, who understands what they're going through, who's fluent and conversant on national security, who understands what America's role in the world is."
At the very least, Palin's solid performance should halt the stream of suggestions from Republicans, even some conservatives, that her selection was a mistake. And for a campaign swimming against a strong tide of events and voter sentiment, that's all they could have asked for Thursday night.