A ‘heckuva’ night

Times Staff Writer

She winked. She wrinkled her nose. She gave a “shout-out” to a third-grade class.

Never before have American voters met a national politician quite like Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who in her debate debut Thursday night mixed colloquialisms and the manner of a PTA mom while talking about such deadly serious topics as nuclear weapons.

“Ah, say it ain’t so, Joe,” Palin scolded her debating opponent, Sen. Joe Biden, after he claimed the Republican ticket would merely continue the policies of President Bush. “Now, doggone it, let’s look ahead and tell Americans what we have to plan to do for them in the future.”


If Palin’s goal was to show that she could credibly share the stage with a seasoned politician -- and turn the page after two bruising weeks of unsteady media interviews -- then she succeeded beyond even many Republicans’ expectations.

She committed no major mistakes, and delivered a livelier and more rhetorically compelling performance than Biden, 21 years her elder, who appeared most comfortable playing the role of grizzled Senate committee chairman. Where Palin talked of parents nervously discussing the economy at their kids’ soccer games, Biden invoked obscure legislative amendments while talking about lessons learned from a late Senate majority leader.

But while Republicans will surely declare victory in the debate (and breathe deep sighs of relief), major questions remain for the GOP ticket.

At a moment when the country is racked by terrifying economic forces, the question facing Palin and her running mate, Republican presidential nominee John McCain, is whether her unusual presence will help the GOP gain enough public confidence to win next month’s election.

The woman who has cast herself as a Washington outsider and middle-class PTA mom -- she claimed a commitment to “Joe Six Pack, hockey moms across the nation” -- also sought to attack Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama on a variety of national security points, calling his views on meeting with foreign dictators, for example, “beyond naive.”

As she put it herself during an exchange with Biden about Iraq, “Oh, man, it’s so obvious that I’m a Washington outsider and someone just not used to the way you guys operate.”

Voters are paying unusually close attention to Palin, not only because she is the first woman to run on a national Republican ticket but because she is so new to national issues. She would be next in line for the presidency behind a man who would be 76 by the end of his first term.

Early polls conducted by major television networks showed Biden winning the encounter -- a suggestion that, unlike the 2000 and 2004 elections that took place in good economic times, this year’s election could be won by the ticket that shows the most substance and an ability to grapple with complex problems.

Still, coming after the Alaska governor’s shaky appearances on CBS News, in which her flailing answers were ridiculed on “Saturday Night Live” and elsewhere, Thursday night gave her a chance to show that she could speak knowledgeably about serious topics.

She turned the conversation repeatedly to energy, an issue she has dealt with as governor of an oil-producing state. She talked about surging troop levels in Afghanistan, and she promised to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem -- a popular position among many Jews.

Potentially erasing memories of her widely mocked efforts to claim foreign policy expertise based on Alaska’s proximity to Russia, Palin talked about preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. She repeatedly mentioned the president of Iran by name, and even talked about having a conversation with former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger.

But she spoke of foreign policy in the broadest of strokes, adopting rhetoric about spreading freedom around the world that is the core of the so-called Bush Doctrine that, in one of her network interviews, she did not seem to understand. And on Iraq, she hewed to years-old attack lines of painting war critics as quitters and accusing Obama of trying to deprive the troops of funding.

“We’re getting closer and closer to victory,” she said, “and it would be a travesty if we quit now in Iraq.”

Biden, in one of his strongest points in the debate, shot back that the Republicans were offering no plan to end the Iraq war.

“This is a fundamental difference between us. We will end this war,” Biden said. “For John McCain, there is no end in sight to end this war.”

Biden, for his part, successfully avoided his pitfalls of appearing overbearing or patronizing. He referred to her by her formal title of Governor.

The main attraction on Thursday, though, was Palin, who used her most-anticipated appearance yet to introduce Americans to her style, which mixes conversational language and sharp elbows.

Though Palin and her husband, Todd, enjoy comfortable incomes, she presented herself as another victim of the fiscal crisis. She said that people can “learn a heckuva lot of good lessons” from the mess.

Go to a kids’ soccer game, she said, “and I’ll betcha, you’re going to hear some fear in that parent’s voice, fear regarding the few investments that some of us have in the stock market. Did we just take a major hit with those investments?”

The pressure on Palin to succeed -- or merely to avoid a meltdown -- was made more intense by the flurry of new polls this week showing the Republican ticket falling behind in several key states, including Ohio and Florida, where McCain was believed to have the edge.

The advances by Obama’s campaign can be tied largely to the financial crisis, with polls showing that far more voters trust the Democratic ticket than the Republicans.

But McCain’s slide also coincided with the rocky stretch for Palin, who was introduced to the nation weeks ago as a mother of five and moose hunter with middle-class appeal but who now is known more for her string of gaffes in network television interviews.

New surveys published this week showed dwindling voter confidence in Palin, particularly among the female voters whom Republicans believed she would draw to the GOP. A Pew poll found that 51% of Americans believe she is not qualified to become president if necessary, and only 37% believe she is qualified -- a reversal from the days after the GOP convention.

One sign of the limits to Palin’s appeal came Thursday, when the McCain campaign announced that it was pulling its staff and advertising out of Michigan. Home to the original Reagan Democrats, as well as hockey moms and snowmobilers, Michigan had appeared instantly more competitive when Palin joined the ticket.

On Thursday night, Palin staked her claim as a representative of middle America and “Main Streeters like me.” Biden too claimed a familiarity with everyday struggles, talking of his working-class roots and tearing up at the memory of the car accident that killed his first wife and daughter 36 years ago.

But Biden’s fluency with national issues may have allowed him to make the more compelling appeal. With the stock market in flux and initial jobless claims on Thursday hitting a seven-year high, voters may decide that they want more in a vice president than someone like themselves.