ST. LOUIS – Republican Sarah Palin and Democrat Joe Biden sought to cast themselves as the “kitchen table” candidate Thursday night in the first and only debate between the major-party vice presidential candidates, each making the claim that their running mates better understand the concerns of middle-class Americans worried about the nation’s faltering economy.
On a night when presidential nominees John McCain and Barack Obama were relegated to the sidelines, Palin and Biden raced through a fast-paced debate that touched on same-sex marriage, the war in Iraq, and the nation’s energy and foreign policies. Each escaped without major mishap, and Palin in particular seemed to repair an image that had been damaged by recent media interviews and increasing public doubts about her readiness for the nation’s number-two job.
From the opening moments of their highly anticipated 90-minute debate, each portrayed themselves as a voice for middle America and attempted to make the case that their ticketmates are best prepared to bring change to Washington and the nation.
Palin, the first female governor of Alaska, referred to “middle-class, average, everyday families like mine,” and in her first answer suggested the proper place to take the temperature of American’s concerns about the economy would be at a Saturday morning soccer game.
“Now, thankfully, John McCain has been one representing reform,” Palin said. “People in the Senate, his colleagues” – she turned to the senator from Delaware – “didn’t want to listen to him and wouldn’t go towards that reform that was needed.”
Biden trained his fire on McCain, noting that the Arizona senator “two Mondays ago” claimed the “fundamentals of the economy were strong.”
He added: “That doesn’t make John McCain a bad guy, but it does point out he’s out of touch.”
The debate, with its emphasis on quick answers and numerous topics, became a barrage of numbers and competing and conflicting visions of Obama and McCain.
Likely to be more lasting for viewers was the lack of obvious mistakes on either side, and an image of Palin, 44, that was more like the confident, smiling politician who burst onto the scene with a fiery speech at the Republican National Convention and less like the stumbling candidate who has seemed ill-prepared in a series of interviews broadcast recently with CBS anchor Katie Couric.
She was respectful and cordial to Biden – “Hey, can I call you Joe?” she asked when she greeted him on the stage – but quick to try to put him on the defensive about his past differences with Obama. “I watched all those debates,” she said, referring to the Democratic primaries in which the two were rivals.
But the essence of the debate – and one of the major arguments of the campaign – may have been illustrated by a long exchange after Biden said policies of the Bush administration has been an “abject failure.”
“There’s a time, too, when Americans are going to say, ‘Enough is enough with your ticket,’ on constantly looking backwards, and pointing fingers, and doing the blame game,” Palin said. “There have been huge blunders in the war. There have been huge blunders throughout this administration, as there are with every administration. But for a ticket that wants to talk about change and looking into the future, there’s just too much finger-pointing backwards to ever make us believe that that’s where you’re going.”
Biden seemed ready with a response.
“Look, past is prologue,” he said. “The issue is, how different is John McCain’s policy going to be than George Bush’s? I haven’t heard anything yet.
“I haven’t heard how his policy is going to be different on Iran than George Bush’s. I haven’t heard how his policy is going to be different with Israel than George Bush’s. I haven’t heard how his policy in Afghanistan is going to be different than George Bush’s. I haven’t heard how his policy in Pakistan is going to be different than George Bush’s.”
In the foreign policy segment, the two candidates drew the same sharp distinctions on the war in Iraq that McCain and Obama had sketched out in their first debate last week. Palin voiced her support for continuing the war in Iraq, even using McCain’s exact phrasing when attacking the Democrats on the war.
“Your plan is a white flag of surrender in Iraq,” the governor said. “We’re getting closer and closer to victory and it would be a travesty if we quit now in Iraq.”
Biden called the war in Iraq “a fundamental difference between us. We will end this war. For John McCain there is no end in sight to this war.”
In one of their more heated exchanges, Palin charged that Obama “opposed funding for our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Senator Biden, I respected you when you called him out on that.” Going out of her way to praise Biden for his support of the troops, she added, “Barack Obama, though, another story there.”
Biden immediately counterattacked, noting that McCain voted against a measure that would have funded the troops because it included a specific timetable for withdrawal. “John McCain voted to cut off funding for the troops,” he replied.
During much of the foreign policy discussion Palin largely bypassed Biden and focused her attacks on Obama, questioning his pledge to meet with some of America’s enemies such as Iranian President Ahmadinejad.
“It goes beyond naivete. It goes beyond bad judgment,” she said. “A statement like that is downright dangerous.”
Palin did not give much ground on foreign policy, mocking Biden for the fact that he initially backed a war in Iraq that he now opposes even as she praised him on other fronts. “I’m a Washington outsider, so I’m just not used to the way you guys operate,” she declared. “You voted for the war and now you’re against it.”
Biden took pains to portray the world stage as a more complicated place than Palin described, questioning the utility of applying certain strategies used in Iraq to other areas of the world.
After Palin said, “The surge principles, not the exact strategy, but the surge principles need to be implemented in Afghanistan also,” Biden pointed to recent comments by the senior U.S. officer in Afghanistan about the war. “Our commanding general in Afghanistan said the surge principles used in Iraq will not work in Afghanistan,” he said. “Not Barack Obama. Not Joe Biden.”
On the home front
On domestic policy issues, both candidates sparred politely over tax policy, energy, health care and gay marriage. Prodded by moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS, the two candidates spent most of the first half of the debate trading barbs about taxes and the economy.
Both described the current economic troubles as an us-versus-them narrative in which the middle class is being taken advantage of by the wealthy.
“Let’s commit ourselves just everyday American people, Joe Six Pack, hockey moms across the nation, I think we need to band together and say never again,” Palin said. “Never will we be exploited and taken advantage of again by those who are managing our money and loaning us these dollars.”
Biden refused to concede the middle class to Palin and McCain. He repeatedly accused the Republican ticket of seeking tax breaks for big corporations, and especially oil companies.
“John wants to add $300 million, billion in new tax cuts per year for corporate America and the very wealthy while giving virtually nothing to the middle class,” Biden said. “We have a different value set. The middle class is the economic engine. It’s fair. They deserve the tax breaks, not the super wealthy who are doing pretty well.”
Biden rarely talked about Palin’s record as governor, returning often to McCain’s history in the Senate.
He accused McCain of backing government deregulation during his career that allowed Wall Street to “run wild,” leading to the current economic crisis.
“John McCain, and he’s a good man, but John McCain thought the answer is that tried and true Republican response, deregulate, deregulate,” Biden said. “He wants to do for the health care industry – deregulate it – and let the free market move like he did for the banking industry.”
The two vice presidential candidates repeated their campaign slogans on taxes. Palin accused Obama of voting to support tax increases 94 times, a claim that Biden forcefully rejected as false.
“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.” Palin said.
“The charge is absolutely not true. Barack Obama did not vote to raise taxes,” Biden responded. “Using the standard that the governor uses, John McCain voted 477 times to raise taxes. It’s a bogus standard.”
On health care, Palin said that Americans would not want it “taken over by the feds” while Biden accused McCain of trying to fool the public with a tax credit for health care insurance that would become more expensive because of the Republican’s policies.
“So you’re going to have to place – replace a $12,000 plan with a $5,000 check you just give to the insurance company,” Biden said. “I call that the “Ultimate Bridge to Nowhere.”
The debate devoted very little time to social issues. But Ifill did seek to clarify the candidates’ positions on same-sex marriage.
Both said they oppose redefining marriage, and seemed also to agree on the need for legal rights for gay couples.
“No one would ever propose, not in a McCain-Palin administration, to do anything to prohibit, say, visitations in a hospital or contracts being signed, negotiated between parties,” Palin said.
Biden praised that answer, saying, “If that’s the case, we really don’t have a difference.”