ST. LOUIS — Sarah Palin plans to go on the attack in tonight’s debate, hitting Joe Biden for what she will call his foreign policy blunders and penchant for adopting liberal positions on taxes and other issues, according to campaign officials involved in prepping her for tonight’s showdown.
The Palin camp is projecting surprising self-confidence in the pre-debate hours, despite the vice presidential nominee’s uneven — and, at some points, peculiar — performances in recent television interviews, the officials say. Top advisers to John McCain privately say Palin’s recent CBS interview was a borderline disaster, especially since it played out in several segments over several days. Tonight will be different, they say.
“This is going to finally put her back into a position where we see her like we saw her the first couple weeks,” a McCain official said. “She was herself. She was authentic, and people related to that. ... Tonight, she’ll get into a rhythm. You’re going to see her in a way that you haven’t seen her yet.”
By contrast, Biden plans what an aide calls "a just-the-facts, prosecutorial approach laying out the case against McCain and defending Obama." The aide said Biden will be "keeping the eye on the target, which is McCain."
It is hard to imagine higher stakes for a vice presidential nominee on the national stage. Palin wowed even her biggest skeptics with her spirited introduction to the American people at the Republican National Convention last month. It’s been downhill since then, however. She has been largely sheltered from unscripted moments on the campaign trail. And, when she has exposed herself to improvisation or tough questioning, Palin has been criticized for offering vague and at times unusual responses.
Palin advisers say that she remains just as popular with much of the Republican base as she was a month ago when her convention speech was hailed as a home run. But her ratings have eroded in polls since then, and the advisers see the 90-minute debate at 9 p.m. Eastern as a chance for a swift turnaround from what they call “negativity” in her news coverage.
From her debate playbook, as described by McCain officials:
— Throw Biden’s own words back at him.
“There’s going to be a lot of opportunities to use Joe Biden’s words against him — and not his gaffes,” an official said. “When he says raising taxes is patriotic, that’s a policy position. That’s what he believes. She’s going to use those against him.”
(On ABC’s “Good Morning America” last month, in explaining the need for the wealthiest Americans to pay more taxes, Biden said: “It's time to be patriotic ... time to jump in, time to be part of the deal, time to help get America out of the rut.”)
— Highlight past Biden foreign-policy positions as a way to undermine his core strength.
“He’s a celebrated foreign policy expert, but he has been wrong … dating back to the Reagan administration,” the official said. “There are opportunities there for her to jump in.”
One example that was provided was Biden’s reference to North Korea as “a paper tiger” on CBS’s “The Early Show” in 2006. (“I would rather have seen it do exactly what it did, demonstrate to the whole world that it is in fact a paper tiger.”)
Another example noted by the campaign was voting for defense cuts during the Reagan administration, and voting against the first Gulf war in 1991. (PolitiFact.com points out that he voted with the majority of Senate Democrats on the resolution.)
— Highlight places where Biden and Barack Obama have differed, including primary-season statements about Obama’s readiness to lead and his positions on Iraq, Iran and Afghaistan.
“He voted for the Iraq war, and Obama said that was poor judgment,” the official. “There are a lot of wedge positions between Obama and Biden.”
—Portray herself as a working mom and outsider who's been in the real-world, rather than being shielded in the bluster of Washington.
McCain officials say they are optimistic despite her falling credibility and likability in polls.
“Nobody who’s in the middle of a campaign takes a minute to panic,” an aide said. “Every single day, there’s an ebb and flow — that’s what makes these things exciting. She’s been there before. She’s done this before. She’s been successful. And we as a campaign expect she will rise to the occasion and be strong.”