Focused sharply on the middle class, Sarah Palin and Joe Biden fought over taxes, military strategy and which party could better rebuild America in a vice presidential debate Thursday that served as the nation’s first extended look at the little-known Alaska governor who vaulted weeks ago onto the Republican ticket.
Returning over and over to the themes that have marked the campaign -- the nation’s threatened economy and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- the two differed tartly but mostly peaceably.
Leaving Palin largely untouched, Biden went after Republican presidential candidate John McCain, the Arizona senator cited repeatedly by Palin on Thursday as a “maverick.”
“He has been no maverick on the things that matter to people’s lives,” said Biden, ticking off several examples of McCain’s fealty to Republican views. “He’s not been a maverick on the war. He’s not been a maverick on virtually anything that genuinely affects the things that people really talk about around their kitchen table.”
Palin was equally blunt in her characterization of the Democratic ticket, led by Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.
“Your plan is a white flag of surrender in Iraq, and that is not what our troops need to hear today -- that’s for sure -- and it’s not what our nation needs to be able to count on,” Palin told Biden in a critique of Democratic proposals to draw down combat troops in Iraq.
During the 90-minute debate from the campus of Washington University, both candidates appeared at least initially to have met the goals set by the campaigns at the outset.
For Palin, the newcomer to the national stage, that meant demonstrating an understanding of federal issues and an ability to think on her feet. For Biden, the six-term Delaware senator, that meant tamping down his loquaciousness and steering clear of anything remotely condescending.
Neither candidate appeared to make a career-altering gaffe. Palin twice called the commanding U.S. general in Afghanistan “Gen. McClellan"; his name is Gen. David McKiernan.
While Palin played up her hockey mom background, the debate’s most emotional moment came when Biden choked up as he discussed the 1972 auto accident that killed his first wife and infant daughter, and gravely injured his two young sons.
Referring to his “excessive passion” in a question from moderator Gwen Ifill about his weaknesses, Biden veered from a soliloquy about his working-class roots to the decades-old tragedy, his voice catching midway through.
“The notion that somehow, because I’m a man, I don’t know what it’s like to raise two kids alone, I don’t know what it’s like to have a child you’re not sure is going to -- is going to make it -- I understand,” Biden said. “I understand, as well as -- with all due respect, the governor or anybody else -- what it’s like for those people sitting around that kitchen table. And guess what? They’re looking for help. They’re looking for help. They’re not looking for more of the same.”
Palin did not respond to Biden’s emotional display, instead offering a variation of a line she used throughout the night. “People aren’t looking for more of the same,” she said. “They are looking for change. And John McCain has been the consummate maverick in the Senate over all these years.”
From the first question, Biden steered most of his remarks toward McCain; Palin struck at Obama but also deployed criticism of some of Biden’s more notable recent remarks.
She quoted Biden as saying that paying higher taxes was patriotic -- actually he said that it was a sign of patriotism for rich Americans to pay more than they do now.
“In the middle class of America, which is where Todd and I have been, you know, all of our lives -- that’s not patriotic,” she said, referring to her husband. “Patriotic is saying, ‘Government, you know, you’re not always a solution; in fact too often you’re the problem.’ ”
After she segued from that to praise for McCain’s healthcare plan, it was Biden’s turn.
“Gwen,” he told the moderator with some exasperation, “I don’t know where to start.”
“To say that not giving ExxonMobil another $4-billion tax cut this year, as John calls for, and giving it to middle-class people to be able to pay to get their kids to college -- we don’t call that redistribution; we call that fairness.”
In her zest to portray Biden as typical of the Washington establishment so despised by voters, Palin at one point made an argument that echoed Obama’s thrust against McCain.
“I do respect your years in the U.S. Senate, but I think Americans are craving something new and different, and that new energy and that new commitment that’s going to come with reform,” Palin told Biden in response to a question about how each would end partisanship.
Over and over, Palin skewered Biden for what she characterized as his ticket’s backward look at the Bush administration’s failures -- a move the Democrats have made in their effort to link McCain with the unpopular president.
“Americans are going to say enough is enough with your ticket constantly looking backwards and pointing fingers and -- and doing the blame game,” she said.
Biden replied that “past is prologue.”
“The issue is, how different is John McCain’s policy going to be than George Bush’s? I haven’t heard anything yet,” he said.
Palin’s novelty was on full display: Rarely are debates at this level peppered, as Thursday’s was, with references to Saturday soccer games and casual phrasings like “I’ll betcha,” “darn right” and “doggone it.” She winked repeatedly, and often uttered remarks in a sing-song lilt more often heard in a children’s classroom than on the national stage.
The experience gap was evident throughout. While Biden riffled easily through policy matters, Palin often resorted to platitudes, at one point telling Biden and Ifill that she “may not answer the questions” the way they wished.
The format did not allow the same back-and-forth that marked this election’s first presidential debate last Friday, but the outlines of the same basic disagreements were evident: Palin painted the Democrats as tax-and-spend dinosaurs and her ticket as one that would crack down on Washington. Biden portrayed the Republicans as a third Bush administration and his ticket as one that would restore America’s international reputation.
“Barack Obama and Sen. Biden also voted for the largest tax increases in U.S. history,” Palin said. “Barack had 94 opportunities to side on the people’s side and reduce taxes, and 94 times he voted to increase taxes or not support a tax reduction -- 94 times.”
“That charge is absolutely not true,” said Biden, who at times appeared to be working hard to disguise his consternation. ". . . Using the standard that the governor uses, John McCain voted 477 times to raise taxes. It’s a bogus standard.”
Palin occasionally got lost in the thickets of rhetoric, as she had in a series of high-profile interviews in the last week.
“That is not so,” she said of Biden’s statement that McCain did not support provisions to help homeowners facing bankruptcy. “But that’s just a quick answer. I want to talk about, again, my record on energy versus -- your ticket’s energy -- ticket, also, I think that this is important to come back to, with that energy policy plan, again, that was voted for in ’05.”
The candidates had a rare moment of unity on the subject of gay marriage, though Palin was more emphatic about her opposition while Biden hit hard on his reluctance to deny same-sex partners equal civil protections.
The candidates differed more on global warming; Biden said it was “man-made” and Palin equivocated.
“If you don’t understand what the cause is, it’s virtually impossible to come up with a solution,” Biden said.
A discussion of Israel sparked one of the night’s most spirited exchanges -- even as both candidates pledged their unstinting support for the longtime U.S. ally -- by spinning into a debate over accountability versus finger-pointing.
Biden condemned Bush’s policy toward Israel as an “an abject failure,” asserting the president had emboldened Israel’s enemies and waited too long into his administration to become engaged in peace talks. “We will change this policy with thoughtful, real, live diplomacy,” said Biden, who suggested that “no one in the United States Senate has been a better friend to Israel than Joe Biden.”
Palin responded by hailing her rival’s support for Israel and rejecting the way Biden depicted Bush’s policies with her line about the “blame game.”
But over and over again, both candidates bore in on what they perceived would link them with the millions of Americans watching in their living rooms and who may ultimately decide the election.
Biden told the story of his friend Joey Danko, who, when Biden asked how much it cost to fill his car’s tank, replied that he had no idea because he never had enough money to do so. Palin gave a “shout-out to all those third-graders at Gladys Wood Elementary School.”
“You get extra credit for watching this debate,” she said.
Times staff writer Mark Z. Barabak contributed to this report.
The spin: Reporters swarm from quote to quote after the debate. Nation, A13
The moderator: Gwen Ifill filled the role with class. Nation, A20