Former Foe: Don't Take Palin Lightly

Most Americans have never seen Sarah Palin debate.

But when she successfully ran for governor of Alaska two years ago, she participated in numerous debates. And former rivals say it would be a mistake to underestimate her debating skills.

Andrew Halcro, a two-term Republican member of the Alaska House of Representatives, opposed Palin in the gubernatorial race as an Independent in 2006, and debated her more than two dozen times.

He knows better than anyone that debating Palin isn't as easy as some may think.

Halcro told the Los Angeles Times, "When you try to prove she doesn't know anything, you lose, because audiences are enraptured by her. ...And her biting comments give you a sense of how competitive she is. Anybody who doesn't take her seriously does so at their peril."

Halcro wrote a piece for the Christian Science Monitor in which he noted her knack for deflecting questions, saying, "Joe Biden will have his hands full. ... She's a master, not of facts, figures, or insightful policy recommendations, but at the fine art of the non-answer, the glittering generality. Against such charms, there is little Senator Biden, or anyone, can do."

On The Early Show Thursday, Halcro told co-anchor Maggie Rodriguez, "She has an amazing ability to connect with people. There were so many times in so many forums that I would walk off the stage and think to myself, 'I didn't understand a word she said in the last 90 minutes,' but, yet, the crowd just absolutely loved her. And, you know, to her defense, a lot of politicians would kill to have that skill, to be able to relate based on public relations, not on public policy."

Palin's been criticized in recent days for skirting questions put to her in TV interviews. Can she get away with that during the debate?

"I don't think so. For a couple of reasons. You have a different stage. You're on the national stage. There are a lot of pressing issues in the country, from the economy to what's going on internationally, but more importantly, I think the wildcard in tonight's debate is going to be the moderator.

"I think Gwen Ifill (of PBC) is a brilliant public policy mind. She knows how to corral politicians and make sure they keep coloring inside the lines, and so I would look for Gwen to push back and say, 'I'm sorry, Gov. Palin, I didn't quite hear an answer to the question,' or, 'I'm sorry, Sen. Biden, how do you reconcile that with your record?' I think what Gwen's gonna do is, she's gonna bring that very calm, cool, collected kind of pushback to make sure the candidates stay inside the lines and answer the questions so the public can hear them."

Any advice for Biden?

"Be respectful. Everybody knows he knows more on domestic and international policy than Gov. Palin. Be respectful. But don't hesitate to say, 'I'm sorry, I didn't hear an answer in that answer.' "