On Small Stage, Palin Scored Big Debate Wins

After delivering halting, unsteady performances in recent interviews with ABC's Charlie Gibson and CBS's Katie Couric, expectations are low for Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in Thursday's vice presidential debate in St. Louis.

Yet a review of Palin's experience during her 2006 campaign for governor, when she engaged in a long series of debates with her opponents, suggests she is a more formidable adversary than is widely thought.

Unlike her opponent Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, who has considerable presidential-level debate experience, Palin has never been involved in a debate where the questions were national and global in scope.

But she is familiar operating in a high-stakes debate environment against older, more seasoned pols who seemingly have better command of the issues.

In 2006, with no experience as a statewide officeholder, Palin ran what amounted to a debate gauntlet, beginning in the Republican primary against incumbent Gov. Frank Murkowski and former state Sen. John Binkley, and then in the general election, against former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles and former state Rep. Andrew Halcro, an independent.

Against that experienced opposition, Palin proved herself to be a comfortable and confident debater, not exactly deeply versed in the issues but unusually adept at dodging controversy and quick to take advantage of opponents' missteps. Not one to throw an unnecessary punch, Palin took a patient approach, waiting for her rivals to expose their weak points - and then striking fast.

"Anyone who watches any of her previous debates would be impressed by her debating skills," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said Saturday, in an attempt to raise expectations for Palin's performance. "She has performed very, very well."

Perhaps the best illustration of her style came on August 8, 2006, during a primary election debate featuring the unpopular incumbent Murkowski, himself a veteran of more than two decades in the U.S. Senate, and Binkley. Palin, by then the GOP frontrunner, kept a wary distance from her rivals, who bickered bitterly.

When Murkowski, taking a caustic tone against his much younger opponents, charged that Binkley did not understand an issue related to fuel company taxation, Binkley replied, "I understand it perfectly." Murkowski shot back angrily: "No, you don't."

Palin, rather than join in the exchange, sat back until her opponents' anger reached a boiling point, and then, with a voice just slightly raised, chimed in: "You know, you guys, we owe Alaskans a better discourse than this."

"Respect to our listeners and our viewers," she continued, "I think we need to speak respectfully and orderly here."

In a single deft blow, Palin made the older men look childish. And she did it calmly, with an upbeat tone of voice.

Palin used a similar rhetorical method earlier in the debate, responding to Binkley's attacks on her brief career in government by telling the veteran legislator: "I'm sure you did a good job back there in the '80s, early '90s."

From her cheerful tone, a listener might have thought Palin was complimenting her opponent - if not for the slightly dismissive edge that crept into her voice as she mentioned Binkley's past experience, as if she were describing an episode in ancient history.

In the general election, Palin employed the same debating style, keeping out of fights between Knowles, the former two-term Democratic governor, and Halcro, and jumping in only when the political terrain seemed favorable.

In a November 2 debate, immediately before the general election, Palin laughed off a particularly acrimonious exchange between her two opponents, joking: "I'm just glad I'm sitting here in between 'em to make sure it doesn't get out of hand."

When offered the opportunity to jab or trivialize her rivals, she took it. Asked whether she would find a place in her administration for Knowles, a ormer businessman and restaurateur, Palin quipped: "Do they need a chef down there in Juneau? I know that is what he enjoys."

In this debate, Palin revealed a glimpse into her vice presidential campaign's antagonistic relationship with the media, gently needling one moderator, who had once worked in Knowles's administration, by referring to the two-term governor as "your old boss."

Just as damaging for her opponents as Palin's stiletto-with-a-smile approach was her apparent ability to deflect every attack launched her way. When the subject of her relative inexperience came up in the August 8 debate, Palin seemed bemused that her opponents would even raise the subject, smiling as the moderator noted that Binkley had tried to coax her into running for lieutenant governor on his ticket.

Binkley, not sensing the risk of looking condescending, jumped in with a hamfisted note: "She would have been a great lieutenant governor."

Palin's conservative stances on social issues were irresistible to some of her foes, but her performance in an October 4, 2006, forum organized by the group Alaska Conservation Voters suggests she is not only comfortable discussing them but adroit at turning the tables.

At the largely nonconfrontational event, the temperature raised a bit when Halcro pointedly quizzed Palin about her position on abortion, implying that her stance on the issue put her at odds with the Alaska constitution.

Even as the audience applauded, apparently in sympathy with Halcro, Palin took the microphone and, without missing a beat, told listeners that "abortion, a sensitive, private issue [was] being used to divide and politicize."

"You know, there are conservation issues that we were going to be talking about today," Palin said, adding with an almost lethal friendliness: "Andrew, bless your heart, you know my position on abortion. I'm pro-life."

In the November 2 debate with Knowles and Halcro, Palin responded just as effectively to aggressive questioning on the same subject. When a moderator pressed her to respond to provocative hypothetical questions involving pregnancies in her own family, Palin, smiling, said: "Again, I would choose life, and certainly I'm quite confident here you're going to be asking my opponents these same scenarios."

Still, for all her success on Alaska's small stage, her contest with Biden will be different than any other debate the governor has participated in, and not just because of the size of the television audience.

In a one-on-one debate with Biden, Palin will not be able to position herself above the fray, as she did so effectively in the gubernatorial campaign. She'll have to confront Biden much more directly, and the Delaware senator may not be as easy to bait as her dyspeptic primary opponents.

Indeed, Biden appears to be expecting exactly that kind of approach from Palin, saying in Chicago last month: "She's going to take a lot of straight lefts and jabs at me, she's going to try to get me to respond, she's going to try to get me to respond in a personal way."

Palin framed it differently in her interview with CBS.

"He's got a tremendous amount of experience and, you know, I'm the new energy, the new face, the new ideas and he's got the experience based on many many years in the Senate and voters are gonna have a choice there of what it is that they want in these next four years," she said.

Palin certainly will be operating Thursday from a different strategic position than that to which she is accustomed.

In her debates with Knowles and Halcro, Palin simply had to maintain a firm and authoritative public image. She didn't have to prove anything since she had already met a threshold of competence to emerge as the frontrunner.

But after her unimpressive round of recent television interviews, performances that raised serious questions about her grasp of the issues and compeence to hold high office, Palin has a much higher bar to meet.

She will have to work hard to show more familiarity with domestic policy, especially after displaying an apparent lack of fluency with economic issues. In her Alaska debates, Palin frequently retreated to noncommittal pronouncements and personal stories when confronted with difficult policy questions, but those tactics may not be as effective on the national stage.

Either way, the Obama-Biden campaign is at least outwardly approaching the debate with a healthy dose of caution.

"She's spending a whole lot of time - hours and hours a day, apparently - preparing for this debate," Plouffe said last weekend. "And we suspect that she'll come in fighting form."