Opinion: Listen for Joe Biden and Sarah Palin to say these things tonight

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Well, we probably won’t get to know much about Wayne Root and Matt Gonzalez during tonight’s vice presidential debate in St. Louis. That’s because the vice presidential running mates of libertarian Bob Barr and contrarian Ralph Nader are prohibited.

Too risky for the two major parties to admit nobodies who might say something disturbing or challenging.

So we’ll have to settle for Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican, and Delaware Democrat Sen. Joe Biden. The only thing they have in common are sons on Iraq military duty; Palin’s son Track arrived last month and Biden’s son Beau leaves tomorrow. You’ll no doubt hear that mentioned tonight.

The lone debate between the veteran six-term senator and the new governor will play out on a campus stage in St. Louis, drawing intense scrutiny and maybe even higher TV ratings than their ticket tops got in their debate last Friday.

Palin’s taken a lot of heat in recent days for answers she didn’t give during a recent TV interview that seems to be going on for several days now. And Biden is taking no heat whatsoever for saying he was shot at in Iraq when he wasn’t, when another Democrat took weeks of heat last winter for saying she was shot at in Bosnia when she wasn’t. Funny how those things happen to the female candidates.


Our esteemed colleague James Oliphant over at the Swamp has pulled together a few debating points to keep in mind as you watch this evening, kind of like a rhetorical scorecard. The top-five goals for each:


Attack John McCain, not Palin

Although Palin’s poll numbers are down nationally, there remains a large and energized group of Palinites who seem to see every attack on her as a personal affront. Add to that the potentially huge number of undecided female voters, and it becomes clear that Biden is walking a fine line. He can’t be viewed as beating up on her.

Don’t lecture.

Biden teaches constitutional law on the side, and he’ll have to resist the temptation to turn professorial if Palin struggles with details or policy positions. Remember ABC’s Charles Gibson peering down at Palin, his spectacles imperiously perched on his nose Santa Claus-style, quizzing her about the Bush Doctrine that he got wrong himself? That played into Palin’s blame-the-media stand.

Keep it short

Biden has a habit of using 12 words when a half-dozen will do. And he’s prone to gaffes. Just recently he said Hillary Clinton might have made a better running mate for Obama and Franklin Roosevelt calmed the nation on television during the stock market crash, which came four years before Roosevelt’s first term and a decade before TV. Other than that Biden was dead-on.


Attack Barack Obama through Biden

The McCain campaign has already highlighted several ways that Biden criticized Obama during the Democratic primaries. One obvious area is the war in Iraq. Biden supported the war and voted to fund it at every instance; Obama has never supported the war and joined other members of Congress in seeking policy leverage through funding bills. This could keep Biden on the defensive and force him to explain himself instead of talk about Obama.

Keep it short

Anyone who watched Palin’s performance last week and this week on the ‘CBS Evening News’ knows what can happen when the governor talks extemporaneously. She seems to wander into a verbal corn maze she can’t find her way out of. So Palin’s answers need to be short, succinct and crystal-clear.

Because it’s all about her

Unlike with Biden, this debate is part of a continuing national referendum on Palin’s fitness for the GOP ticket. The truth is, Biden will be an afterthought regardless of what he does, short of setting his lectern on fire. All eyes will be on Palin. Her answers will be dissected, analyzed, debated. She can’t afford too many mistakes.

For the last two goals of each VP candidate, check out Oliphant’s complete story here.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo credits: Associated Press (Joe Biden, top); Helen Ebenhack / Associated Press (Sarah Palin, bottom)