Republican Party strategists have unwittingly placed a tremendous burden on the vice presidential candidate, on the eve of her biggest test yet: her debate with Democratic counterpart Joe Biden on Thursday at Washington University in St. Louis.
Palin missed a high-profile opportunity after the first Barack Obama-John McCain debate. The nation looked forward to hearing her analysis. She could have scored points by appearing on nationwide television and simply parroting the McCain party line while voicing her conviction that he had won the debate.
Really, this is little more than a glorified photo opportunity for a running mate to show support for the presidential candidate and attack the other party's aspirant.
But, tellingly, Palin was nowhere to be seen or heard in Oxford, Miss., on Sept. 26. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is accustomed to the media glare, pinch-hit for Palin. Handling the post-debate analysis, Giuliani delivered the same sorts of anti-Democratic jabs he has been giving on the campaign trail all along. He spoke with force, but it was anticlimactic. The nation wanted to see and hear Palin.
Perhaps Republican advisers were concerned that Palin wouldn't distinguish herself in an unscripted moment. The strategists might have been justified in their apprehension over Palin's ability to improvise and take command during an encounter with the national media.
Palin's indecisiveness and apparent nervousness at times in interviews with two network-news anchors, ABC's Charlie Gibson and CBS's Katie Couric, have prompted supporters to question her poise under pressure. Palin did, though, seem more in command when John McCain sat with her as Couric posed questions.
As a Wall Street Journal piece hammered home earlier this week, Palin has been cramming with campaign advisers in advance of her debate with Biden.
Palin has a lot to live up to.
The first-term governor of Alaska, who has received attention for everything from her religious beliefs to her edgy eyeglasses, has succeeded in drawing approving audiences of tens of thousands -- a very encouraging sign for McCain. He had largely failed to wow undecided voters and, before Palin's emergence, had only a shaky connection to the extremely conservative arm of the Republican Party.
On Thursday evening, the pressure will be on Palin to project a sense of expertise, confidence and decisiveness when she answers questions during the debate. But the GOP's strategy has been to shield Palin from nettlesome questions from the media. During the debate, Palin will have to face America without the protection of handlers.
If Palin falters during the clash with Biden, pundits will, no doubt, criticize the strategy to keep her out of the national media spotlight. Palin, therefore, must show that she is as worthy of the No. 2 slot on a national ticket -- and as plausible a potential president -- as Biden.
Biden, of course, has also faced criticism during his decades in national service. But there appears to be a crucial difference here.
Palin has been blasted for a lack of expertise, for her ill-advised statements about the proximity of Russia to her native Alaska, for her staged photo ops with foreign leaders, and for an inability to handle tough questions from reporters on the fly.
All of these criticisms could be legitimized during a vice presidential debate.
As for Biden, he will have to avoid sounding professorial, preachy or downright dull.
By contrast, the Republican brain trust can take comfort in one quality of McCain's running mate: As we have seen by now in Sarah Palin's scant media appearances, she is never dull.
What must Sarah Palin accomplish during her debate with Joe Biden?
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By Jon Friedman