Even before she reached the podium, the first words out of Sarah Palin's mouth set the tone for her debate night: "Hey, can I call ya Joe?" It was an unabashedly, one might even say relentlessly folksy and down-home Palin that greeted Americans Thursday night, with phrases like "Doggone it," "You guys," "Darn right" and, one she must have been saving 'til the end, "Say it ain't so, Joe!" You became "ya," change was "comin'" and a class of third-graders even got a "shout-out" from the Alaska governor.
And whether viewers loved or hated it, a result likely to split down party lines, it was clear this was a much more comfortable candidate than the one who faced CBS News' Katie Couric in those painful interviews. She even said as much in her closing statement: "I like being able to answer these tough questions without the filter ... of the mainstream media kinda telling viewers what they just heard," she said. "I'd rather just be able to speak to the American people." And so she did.
But if Palin made ground in repairing her shaky image, Sen. Joe Biden was just as effective in reining in his tendency to occasionally appear overexcited or, as moderator Gwen Ifill put it, undisciplined. He was generally focused and forceful, and seemed to take painstaking care not to appear disrespectful in the least.
And so he'd merely smile broadly when she'd issue a zinger, and if he wanted to challenge her facts, he was likely to use Ifill as a buffer, as in "Facts matter, Gwen," when he really meant "Facts matter, Sarah." For those who were paying attention to the facts, it was hard not to notice that Palin was often speaking in generalities and less comfortable than Biden on a number of questions, on a question about Israel and the Middle East, for example, she seemed to be reading a laundry list of talking points off a card.
She was clearly most comfortable on the subject of energy, which she referred to frequently. She drew chuckles when she corrected Biden on the pro-drilling chant: It was "drill, baby drill," she informed him, not "drill, drill, drill." Biden, though, assuming he noticed, chose not to correct his opponent when she twice referred to the top US commander in Afghanistan as "Gen. McClellan," rather than David McKiernan.
The governor didn't just sound more comfortable, she looked it too, her demeanor was more relaxed than in those halting TV interviews, and, for those following her fashion choices, she'd gone back to the someup, somedown hairdo she sported for her successful GOP convention speech.
In all, it was a much warmer debate than the contest six days ago in Mississippi between Barack Obama and John McCain. There were a lot more smiles, genuine ones, not McCain's frustrated, barely contained variety, and the candidates actually turned and looked at each other frequently. There was even room for a few compliments. And Ifill was a fairly tolerant moderator, not giving Palin too much grief for sometimes answering a different question than was asked, a tactic the governor cheerfully admitted to at one point.
So did the debate change any minds? It didn't seem likely. For one undecided voter, each candidate scored points. "I think Palin talked more like a person, and Biden talked more like a politician," said Michelle Lamar, a writer and mother in Kansas City. "Palin connects with the people, she reminds me of Reagan."
But, Lamar said, Palin also sounded "like she was spewing a PR-ish tone. We saw her spark a little in the middle, but overall she was not as strong. Biden sounded intelligent, worthy of leadership. Overall, I think it was a draw."
Committed Obama supporter Tim Quigley, a microbiologist from Haddon Heights, NJ, found Palin's downhome tone offensive. "I found her folksy talk insulting and inappropriate for someone running for the vice presidency," said Quigley. "While Biden didn't sweep the floor with Palin as I had anticipated, I feel like that was more a function of him toning it down to avoid being perceived as a Washington bully. He refuted her non-answers of the questions with facts, and carried himself in a much more executive manner."
Palin fans who were wavering in recent days, or at least becoming concerned by her falling poll numbers, had reason to sit back and sigh with relief, if just for a moment. "I'm thankful Sarah Palin held her own," said Jean Pirovic, a real estate agent and longtime Republican from Hyattsville, Md. "I was impressed by Joe Biden's performance and behavior and his public service, but he did nothing to help me understand how he will change things. I will remain Republican and support the ticket."