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DEBATE: Palin, Biden faceoff mostly cordial, if scrappy

S?T. LOUIS -- Democrat Joe Biden, who has spent years trying to get into prime time, and Republican Sarah Palin, a Republican some critics say is not ready for it, scrapped for 90 minutes Thursday night in a lively, rapid-fire vice presidential d...

Post-debate discussion
Accompanied by family members, Republican vice presidential candidate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin talks to Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., after the vice presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis Thursday night (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

S?T. LOUIS -- Democrat Joe Biden, who has spent years trying to get into prime time, and Republican Sarah Palin, a Republican some critics say is not ready for it, scrapped for 90 minutes Thursday night in a lively, rapid-fire vice presidential debate.

"Nice to meet you," Palin told Biden, who has made two failed bids for the presidency, as they came on stage.

"It's a pleasure," Biden replied.

"Hey, can I call you Joe?" Palin inquired.

And from there, it was off and running as Delaware Sen. Biden and Alaska Gov. Palin poked and prodded on the stage at Washington University in St. Louis.


"We're tired of the old politics as usual," Palin said. "And that's why, with all due respect, 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."

Biden's attack was summed up in a response to a question concerning the ongoing congressional battle over the financial bailout plan.

"It brings us back to maybe the fundamental disagreement between Gov. Palin and me and Sen. McCain and Barack Obama, and that is that we're going to fundamentally change the focus of the economic policy," Biden said. "We're going to focus on the middle class, because when the middle class is growing, the economy grows and everybody does well, not just focus on the wealthy and corporate America."

No matter what the subject -- Wall Street, taxes, health care, energy, education, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan or nuclear proliferation -- the two sparred mostly over the records of the presidential nominees.

When, for example, Palin charged that Obama had voted against funding U.S. troops, Biden responded by pointing out that McCain had voted the same as Obama and the voting issue was not funding the troops but setting a timeline for withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

Palin was more forceful in attacking Obama and Biden for having opposed the administration-backed military surge in Iraq. "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," she said.

Biden, in response, said: "John McCain has been dead wrong. I love him. As my mother would say, God love him, but he's dead wrong on the fundamental issue relating to the conduct of the war. Barack Obama has been right. There are the facts."

Palin chastised Biden for defending Obama's vote, "especially with your son in the National Guard" and en route to Iraq, but Biden did not respond to the mention of his son, Beau. Palin did not mention her own son, who is in Iraq with the Alaska National Guard.


Although polls show the public is increasingly skeptical of the freshman governor's readiness for high public office, experts say she held her own against Biden, a veteran of 35 years in the Senate.

"I think the preparation helped Palin a lot," said Wayne Fields, a Washington University political communications expert. "They were still relatively general answers but they were smoothly delivered. She was more confident and there was none of that faltering we saw in some of the interviews."

Fields said Biden's experience and knowledge of issues clearly came through as a "contrast" to Palin.

Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas government professor, said both candidates cleared their hurdles - with Palin needing to look informed and confidant and Biden needing to avoid verbosity and condescension.

"People who were worried on the Republican side were reassured that she is not a glaring embarrassment based on what she did," Buchanan said. "And he didn't insult her or engage in verbosity."

He praised Palin as "poised, articulate, confident, friendly, witty and respectful."

"Substantively the debate moved too fast to be clear to most viewers," Buchanan said. "But Palin did reassure worried Republicans as to her credibility as a prospective vice president. And Biden did not commit any gaffes involving either excess verbosity or disrespect toward Palin."

"But since so little was expected of Governor Palin going in, the fact that she exceeded expectations will probably be" the headline, he added.


Palin also presented herself as a Washington outsider, a champion of "everyday people," and hardly altered her manner of speaking. Her remarks were peppered with "betcha" and "gonna."

At one point, she directed her remarks to Alaska, saying, "Here's a shout-out" to the third-graders at Gladys Wood Elementary School in her home state. She said they would all receive extra credit for watching the debate.

She also borrowed one of the most famous quips from presidential debates - Ronald Reagan's "there you go again" to Jimmy Carter in 1980 - to dismiss Biden's criticism of McCain.

Biden avoided lengthy answers laden with the sometimes difficult-to-understand language of Capitol Hill. And he repeatedly presented the argument for the election of the Obama-McCain ticket. In virtually every area of public policy, an Obama-McCain administration would be a "fundamental change" from the Bush presidency while a McCain-Palin White House would be a continuation of Bush's policies, he said.

The debate came against the backdrop of sagging poll numbers for GOP presidential nominee John McCain nationwide and in several key states. Two hours before the event, McCain campaign officials waved the white flag in Michigan, a state they had had high hopes of taking out of the Democratic column.

"This is a meaningful moment strategically," said David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager. "Their narrow path just got narrower."

The revised strategy puts heavy pressure on McCain to capture Pennsylvania, Wisconsin or Minnesota to win the White House.

"The hill is getting a little steeper" for McCain, said Dan Bartlett, former longtime adviser to President Bush.


Despite the development, Palin stuck with the GOP strategy of portraying McCain as a maverick who "thankfully has been the one representing reform."

"I think that the alarm has been heard," she said, referring to the economic crisis, "and there will be that greater oversight, again thanks to John McCain's bipartisan efforts that he was so instrumental in bringing folks together over this past week, even suspending his own campaign to make sure he was putting excessive politics aside and putting the country first," she said, ignoring McCain's participation in a White House meeting that led to the collapse of an early agreement on an early version of the economic bailout plan.

Biden worked to pierce the image of McCain as reformer in touch with Main Street, noting his recent comments - later retracted - that the fundamentals of the U.S. economy were strong.

"That doesn't make John McCain a bad guy, but it does point out he's out of touch," Biden said.

Palin blamed the economic crisis on bankers.

"Darn right it was the predator lenders," she said, "who tried to talk Americans into thinking that it was smart to a $300,000 house if we could only afford a $100,000 house. There was deception there, and there was greed and there is corruption on Wall Street. And we need to stop that."

Biden said it was partly McCain's fault.

"John McCain, and he's a good man, but John McCain thought the answer is that tried-and-true Republican response: deregulate, deregulate," he said.


Ignored promises

Following on a question that got non-responses at last week's presidential debate, moderator Gwen Ifill asked what campaign promises might have to be ignored because of the economic crisis. Biden said "we might have to slow down a commitment we made to double foreign assistance."

Palin offered no specifics, saying, "There is not (anything that would be cut). And how long have I been at this, five weeks? So there hasn't been a whole lot that I've promised except to do what is right for the American people, put government back on the side of the American people, stop the greed and corruption on Wall Street.

A question about the causes of climate change produced sharp differences.

"I'm not one to attribute ... activity of man to the changes in the climate," Palin said. "There is something to be said also for man's activities, but also for the cyclical temperature changes on our planet. But there are real changes going on in our climate. And I don't want to argue about the causes."

Said Biden: "Well, I think it is man-made. I think it's clearly man-made. And, look, this probably explains the biggest fundamental difference between John McCain and Barack Obama and Sarah Palin and Joe Biden - Governor Palin and Joe Biden.

"If you don't understand what the cause is, it's virtually impossible to come up with a solution," Biden said.

The candidates talked their way to agreement on benefits for same-sex couples, both voicing support while opposing same-sex marriage.


"Look, in an Obama-Biden administration, there will be absolutely no distinction from a constitutional standpoint or a legal standpoint between a same-sex and a heterosexual couple," Biden said.

Palin agreed, but said opposes anything that "goes closer and closer towards redefining the traditional definition of marriage between one man and one woman. And unfortunately that's sometimes where those steps lead."

The debate series continues Tuesday in Nashville when McCain and Obama meet for the second of their three scheduled encounters.

Michigan retreat

Earlier Thursday, Mike DuHaime, McCain's political director, confirmed the Michigan retreat, saying staff there would be moved to Maine, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Several recent polls showed Obama with a 10-point lead in Michigan. Through most of September, the polls had shown a statistical dead heat.

In Michigan, as across the nation, economic woes are accruing to Obama's benefit.

"When you have the fundamentals the way they are and then have a crisis like this, for the party in power it's a toxic brew," Bartlett said.

DuHaime said the economic problems have produced "one of the worst" political environments for Republicans in the past 35 years.

Can McCain win without Michigan?

"We did it twice," Bartlett said of the two Bush campaigns, which included a three-point Michigan loss in 2004 and a five-point loss in 2000.

Ken Herman's e-mail address is khermancoxnews.com. Scott Shepard's e-mail address is sshepard@coxnews.com .

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