(ST. LOUIS) - Rarely, if ever, has a vice presidential debate marked a make-or-break moment for a presidential campaign, but tonight's showdown in St. Louis may prove to be just that for the Republican ticket.
When John McCain declined to play it safe and asked Sarah Palin — a first-term governor from the nation's most remote state — to be his running mate, he staked his entire campaign on a principle that flew in the face of conventional wisdom: that the bottom of the ticket could make the difference on Election Day.
After the initial shock of McCain's selection wore off, Palin delivered a widely acclaimed acceptance speech and showed an ability to draw tens of thousands of zealous supporters to rallies across the country. Dubbed "John McBrilliant" by Rush Limbaugh, McCain had a new spring in his step with his 44-year-old spring of energy by his side, and the Republican ticket shot up in the polls.
But sometime around the moment when Tina Fey delivered her first biting parody of Palin on "Saturday Night Live," the public perception of the Alaska governor began to shift. Polls showed that fewer voters thought of Palin as the fresh face who delivered a great speech and more began to see her as a political neophyte whose foreign policy experience amount to being able to see Russia from her house, as Fey satirized it.
Next came a series of interviews with CBS News' Katie Couric, in which Palin gave vague, sometimes rambling answers to specific questions about her policy views, leading some prominent conservatives such as Kathleen Parker and David Brooks to suggest that Palin wasn't up to the task of being the proverbial heartbeat away.
Despite what McCain said on Wednesday, it is not only members of the Georgetown cocktail circuit who are now questioning whether Palin is qualified to assume the presidency at a moment's notice. According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll, less than half of voters now think Palin reaches the minimal threshold of being able to "understand complex issues."
Just as unnerving for the Republicans, the latest CBS News poll shows that Palin's favorability rating, especially among female voters, has plummeted. Now just 30 percent of women have a favorable view of Palin, while 34 percent have an unfavorable view of her.
In more than a dozen debates during her successful 2006 run for governor, Palin proved herself to be a solid performer. The television audience for tonight's bout with Biden is expected to be enormous, and it could very well offer Palin her last chance to redefine herself in the eyes of the American public.
Expectation-setters have arrived at the following consensus: Biden must avoid coming across as a condescending know-it-all, while Palin has to show that she has the depth of knowledge necessary to be vice president.
Biden is well-known for his verbosity and undoubtedly has been reminded to limit the extraneous "honest-to-God" and "ladies-and-gentlemen"-sprinkled asides that he is prone to. But Palin, too, has shown a propensity for the run-on sentence, most notably while trying to answer Couric's question about the financial bailout plan when she became tangled in a labyrinth of words and provided another early Christmas gift to Tina Fey.
In an interview with conservative radio host Sean Hannity on Wednesday, Palin was much sharper. She broke down the financial crisis into simple, concise language, expressing her concern for "the mom and pops" and making the case for McCain's leadership on the issue. She'll have to be just as clear and reassuring in tonight's debate.
One of Palin's biggest pitfalls during the Couric interviews was her apparent tendency to overthink her answers. When Couric asked what magazines and newspapers Palin read as governor, it should have been a gimmee for the former journalism major. It's easy to imagine Palin rattling off the Anchorage Daily News, Time or Newsweek, and perhaps the Wall Street Journal as part of her regular reading repertoire. But it didn't work out that way.
You could almost see the gears grinding in her head, as if she were straining to come up with the "right" political response to Couric's simple question. Finding none, Palin declared that she read "all of them." It's a cliché that candidates shouldn't try too hard and should just "be themselves" during interviews and debates, but it certainly rings true in Palin's case.
No one expects Palin to have the breadth of knowledge on national issues that the 35-year veteran of Washington Biden possesses. But she does need to show that she has thought seriously about the issues facing the country and has the ability to step in to lead the nation if required. If Palin gets stumped on an issue by moderator Gwen Ifill, she must find a smooth way to move on. A particularly blank stare or incoherent rambling could prove devastating.
Debates are often remembered for the one-liners that bring the house down. Who could forget Ronald Reagan's quip about how he would not exploit his opponent's youth and inexperience for political gain or Lloyd Bentsen's devastating put-down to Dan Quayle about the young senator being no John Kennedy?
It would be a nice bonus for Palin if she were able to deliver a memorable shot at Biden, but far more important for the Republican is that she shows a broad command of the issues rather than an ability to provide a great sound bite.