Sarah Palin did better than expected; at least she didn’t swallow her own tongue or something like that. However, in order to be able to do that, she had to literally and explicitly ignore questions for which she wasn’t prepared. I think that’s why we didn’t get a moment like the Couric interviews gave us; with Couric, Palin couldn’t avoid the questions for which she was unprepared. Here, she could just say “I don’t care what you want me to talk about, I’m going to reiterate my talking points about energy.”
While this meant she didn’t completely embarrass herself, it didn’t hide her overall unreadiness for the job. There were many questions in which I noticed the golden moment when she transitioned from “I don’t know how to answer Gwen… how do I get to a talking point” to “I’m on my script; now I can look at the camera.” She wasn’t really answering questions – she was working from a script.
Also, her refusal to answer the question about whether she thought gays couples should have equal legal rights as straight couples was painfully awkward. The look of disgust on her face in that section as she talked about how she “tolerates” gays told a lot more about what she thinks than her words said.
Biden did much better, in my opinion. He didn’t have any major gaffes, and he was able to avoid the pitfall of appearing to condescend to his younger female rival. His early zing about the Bridge to Nowhere was well received in the left-leaning young crowd with which I saw the debate. His late fusillade against the McCain as a “Maverick” was strong – too bad he waited so long to deploy it.
I think the moment that has the greatest potential to be Biden’s either strength or undoing was when he got emotional talking about his son almost dying from the car crash that killed his wife and daughter. The moment was very powerful for me as a counter to the idea that only a “hockey mom” understands real people, but how will it play? The Conventional Wisdom is that a similar moment saved Hillary in New Hampshire, but also that a moment of tears killed Muskie’s campaign in 1972.
In my eyes, the debate was a win for Biden – he answered the questions, and he answered them well. He was also able to take a lot of shots at McCain that Palin couldn’t deflect.
On another note, it was very interesting to have the debate at my alma mater. We watched the debate on the other end of campus, at a special program for young alumni and students at the art school. It was very interesting to go through the police checkpoint, to see the McCain boosters outside the security perimeter, and to see the riot police getting prepared to handle the event.
We also had an interesting conversation on public transportation on the way back. The woman sitting next to us was in town just for the debate – she’s working for the Obama campaign. The really interesting thing is that she’s not even an American! She quit her job in her homeland of Denmark this summer to come here to work on Obama’s campaign. The passion behind this election is amazing.