Starting Gate: Five Questions For The Vice Presidential Debate

(ST. LOUIS) Despite the great expectations and high interest in this presidential campaign, last week's debate between John McCain and Barack Obama drew far fewer viewers than expected. Just over 52 million people tuned in. Granted, it was a Friday night event and those are generally the lowest-rated debates in each cycle but it still came as somewhat of a shock given the nature of this race. Tonight's high stakes face-off between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin should shatter those numbers with even semi-interested viewers tuning in out of curiosity if nothing else. Here are five questions heading into the showdown in St. Louis:

1. Can Palin Pull It Off? No doubt Sarah Palin has been a political and cultural phenomenon since being plucked out of the relative obscurity of Alaska and put on the national ticket. That hasn't always been a positive for McCain given her performances in the few interviews she's given in the past month which have been uneven, to say the least. Where are the expectations for her going in? Mostly low, although a review of her debate performances while running for governor have shown her to be very agile in such forums.

Voters can usually look past gaffes and lack of command as long as the candidate shows a grasp of the bigger picture and a solid understanding of a broad range of issues even if the particulars aren't there. That is Palin's challenge. Voters know she has deeply-held beliefs but haven't seen her put them in a broader context. McCain's age and health remains a big issue and Palin must provide a basic level of comfort, even for Republicans who are increasingly questioning her qualifications.

2. Can Biden Hold It Back? While Palin struggled to find a Supreme Court case outside of Roe v. Wade to discuss in her recent interview with Katie Couric, Biden could give the nation a dissertation on even the most obscure cases decided in recent decades – and would be thrilled to do so. A candidate predisposed to extreme verbosity can run into serious trouble in the kind of controlled environment of a debate. The urge to delve into deeper explanations of sometimes complex issues can lead Biden to say a lot without really saying much of anything.

Then there is the issue of the "gaffe." During the primaries, Biden was most effective and gaffe-free when he was relaxed and sort of letting it all hang out. That Biden was often funny and graceful on the debate stage. But that's when he was a candidate with slim hopes of winning the nomination. He's now someone else's running mate and is no longer strictly speaking for himself. A lot has been said about the danger that Biden may seem condescending to Palin as well. But nothing in his history really suggests that is as much of a worry as keeping his discussion short and simple. Can he pull that off?

3. What Are The Messages? Sure, there's intense interest in Sarah Palin but what will we really find out about her in this debate? Expect both candidates to spend more time talking about the tops of the tickets than themselves. Biden's approach to Palin thus far has been simple, saying that he knows little about her other than she supports the "Bush-McCain" policies of the past eight years. In fact, you might hear Biden mention the president more than the GOP nominee. His mission is simple – connect McCain to Bush as often as possible. For Palin, other than calming nervous Republicans, her mission will be to make a case that he kind of change Obama is proposing is "liberal" and dangerous for the country. McCain and Obama are the presidential candidates, after all, expect them to be the focus.

4. Does The Moderator Matter? The general rule of thumb for moderators at these debates is to try and not become part of the story. Thanks to a well-timed "revelation" yesterday, trumpeted by the Drudge report and responded to by outraged talk show hosts, tonight's moderator was pulled into at least the pre-debate hype. PBS'Gwen Ifill's upcoming book about the new generation of black leaders became a rallying point among conservatives who questioned her impartiality in the campaign. Perceived bias is a constant companion in campaigns and there's no doubt that this was hyped up by some quarters seeking to tilt the expectations game toward Palin. It turns out that the book was no secret as Ifill has discussed in publicly on several occasions. Even John McCain has voiced his support for her professionalism. That won't stop conservatives from talking about it but most voters are almost certainly more interested in the answers Palin gives than the questions she's asked.

5. Do Running Mates Matter? Conventional wisdom holds that voters look to the top of the tickets to make their decisions, not to the running mates. This year might prove the exception to that rule, especially when it comes to the Republican team. McCain will be the oldest president ever to be sworn in should he win in November, not an inconsequential consideration for many voters. That's why the stakes are so high for Palin here tonight. Support for McCain has decreased in recent weeks and there is evidence that her presence on the ticket is a part of that. It's up to her to stop that trend, if not reverse it and that's what almost everyone will be watching for tonight.