By that standard, she got out alive, though there were white-knuckle moments along the way: questions that were answered with painfully obvious talking points that betrayed scant knowledge of the issue at hand, and sometimes little relevance to the question that had been asked.
But recent days have given John McCain’s team little reason to suppose that not-that-bad is good enough. The Republican ticket’s sliding polls and narrowing electoral map gave it a different imperative in her showdown against Joe Biden. That was to alter the trajectory of the race in a way reminiscent of how Palin first enlivened Republicans—it seems long ago now—when she joined the ticket in late August.
Absent new polling, there is little reason to think she cleared that bar in St. Louis.
To the contrary, it is hard to count any objective measures by which Biden did not clearly win the encounter. She looked like she trying to get people to take her seriously. He looked like he was running for vice president. His answers were more responsive to the questions, far more detailed and less rhetorical.
On at least ten occasions, Palin gave answers that were nonspecific, completely generic, pivoted away from the question at hand, or simply ignored it: on global warming, an Iraq exit strategy, Iran and Pakistan, Iranian diplomacy, Israel-Palestine (and a follow-up), the nuclear trigger, interventionism, Cheney's vice presidency and her own greatest weakness.
Asked which is a greater threat, a nuclear Pakistan or a nuclear Iran, Palin seemed to be stalling, or writing a term paper, when she said: “An armed, nuclear armed especially Iran is so extremely dangerous to consider.”
Biden was crisper, with a dose of realism: “Iran getting a nuclear weapon would be very, very destabilizing. They are more than — they are not close to getting a nuclear weapon that's able to be deployed.”
Biden relentlessly and clearly delivered a specific message he had been assigned to hammer home: McCain-Palin would be four more years of Bush-Cheney. Biden mentioned President Bush more than a dozen times.
"Look, past is prologue, Gwen," he said at one point. "The issue is, how different is John McCain's policy going to be than George Bush's? I haven't heard anything yet."
By contrast, Palin was in much more of a survival mode, barely delivering on her advisers' hopes that she would be aggressive with Biden, throwing gaffes and policies back at him. For the Alaska governor, it was policy as a second language — adequate, but not enlightening.
She twice referred to the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, as "McClellan." Biden did not correct her.
Washington power lawyer Robert Barnett, who helped Biden prepare, said viewers would come away with the sense that Palin "is a nice person, an interesting person but not a qualified-to-be-the-president-of-the-United-States person."
Biden, he said, "was anecdotal, was a little bit emotional" and showed "professionalism, preparation and knowledge."
Of course, there is long experience at this point showing that it is the subjective measures—-who strikes more voters as more appealing, more genuine, more plausible—on which these encounters turn.
On this ground both candidates had their moments.
From the moment she blew a kiss as she walked onstage, the Alaska governor was folksy and spunky, dropping a “bless their hearts” here, a “God bless ‘er” there, and “darn right” – twice. She showed a cheerfulconfidence that must have been hard to muster after the humiliating coverage of her amateurish interviews with Katie Couric of the “CBS Evening News.”
Biden offered a fluent, self-assured performance of the sort that can not be especially hard for him after two presidential campaigns, 35 years in the Senate, countless appearances on Sunday morning programs. People impressed by references to legislation, or citations of his record in world hot spots from Bosnia to Darfur, got these in spades.
But Biden also had the evening’s most powerful emotional moment, when he responded to an exchange about how well the candidates relate to the struggles of ordinary Americans by recalling his first wife and daughter—killed in an automobile accident shortly after his election to the Senate in 1972.
Biden seemingly choked up as he said: “Look, I understand what it's like to be a single parent. When my wife and daughter died and my two sons were gravely injured, I understand what it's like as a parent to wonder what it's like if your kid's going to make it.”
But the past couple weeks have offered little evidence that political theatrics—so important in many elections—are what most voters are looking for in the current circumstances, with an economy on the brink and a global financial crisis threatening to push it over.
The debate did nothing to arrest – and may even have helped cement – a gradual but unmistakable turnabout in the race, with Obama gaining in polls and momentum and McCain losing ground in must-win states. The financial meltdown has put a new premium on competence, and Palin did nothing to show she is ready to be in charge.
After Barack Obama wrapped up the Democratic nomination in June, the Republican knock against him was supposed to be that he was too exotic and too risky.
But in the months since, Obama chose a Washington fixture in Biden, and McCain chose a little-known and little-tested maverick from Alaska. McCain suspended his campaign and elbowed his way into sensitive financial bailout talks, with little to show for his efforts, while Obama kept his distance and made a show of consulting with Robert Rubin and Warren Buffett. Obama and Biden both offered somewhat subdued debate performances that showed technical command of policies.
In many ways, Obama-Biden has taken ownership of the play-it-safe vote, and McCain-Palin have become the more unpredictable and potentially risky choice.
The Obama campaign got a good laugh out of her answer about when nuclear weapons should be put into play: "Nuclear weaponry, of course, would be the be-all, end-all of just too many people in too many parts of our planet, so those dangerous regimes, again, cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, period."
The "be-all, end-all" is already a punch line around Washington.
Asked about the role of the vice president, Biden was comfortable, after discussing the issue with the boss, to say: "I would be the point person for the legislative initiatives in the United States Congress for our administration."
Palin's answer was more abstract, and obscure: "We have a lot of flexibility in there, and we'll do what we have to do to administer very appropriately the plans that are needed for this nation."
And she had at least a couple harp-seal-on-the-ice moments, as when she wandered into this sentence when trying to rebut a point Biden had made on energy: “That is not so, but because that's just a quick answer, I want to talk about, again, my record on energy -- your ticket's energy -- ticket also. I think that this is important to come back to, with that energy policy plan, again, that was voted for in '05.”
But if there were some moments that seemed ripe for mockery, there were also many that showed Palin’s skill in taking debates out of the realm of Washington arcana and to a ktchen-table vernacular.
Sometimes that vernacular came with a sharp edge, as when she lectured Biden, “Your plan is a white flag of surrender in Iraq, and that is not what our troops need to hear today, that’s for sure.”
She was more folksy when she talked about taxes, and even seemed to be channeling Ronald Reagan, the supreme example of a politician who connected to voters even while making Washington elites cringe with his shaky grasp of policy detail.
“Now you said recently that higher taxes or asking for higher taxes or paying higher taxes is patriotic,” she told Biden. “In the middle class of America which is where Todd and I have been all of our lives, that's not patriotic. Patriotic is saying, government, you know, you're not always the solution. In fact, too often you're the problem so, government, lessen the tax burden and on our families and get out of the way and let the private sector and our families grow and thrive and prosper.”
If Palin had cleared the expectations who were rooting for or praying to avoid a nationally televised splat, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said she had met his team’s expectations almost exactly.
“We’ve said all along that she’s a very talented politician; she proved that again tonight,” said Plouffe. “But she’s selling a failed product.”