ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin painted herself as a plain-spoken middle-class champion while Joe Biden blended a common touch with deep experience, as the two vice presidential nominees clashed over Iraq, the economy and other key issues in Thursday's debate.
Palin peppered her responses with "darn right" and "I'll betcha" and at one point a wink to the audience, while Biden debated among more traditional lines, offering point by point descriptions of where he and Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama stood.
Nowhere was the disagreement sharper than it was over Iraq. Both Palin and Biden have sons in or headed to Iraq, but they offered vividly different views of the conflict.
"We cannot afford to lose there or we're going to be no better off in the war in Afghanistan, either. We have got to win in Iraq," Palin said.
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Biden fought back, saying that "Barack Obama's offered a clear plan — shift responsibility to the Iraqis over the next 16 months. Draw down our combat troops." Obama would withdraw one to two brigades a month.
Palin called that plan a "white flag of surrender," and recalled that Biden originally was for the war in Iraq. Biden voted to give President Bush broad authority to wage war in 2002, but has since been a leading critic of the way the administration has conducted the war.
"Oh, man," Palin said, "it's so obvious that I'm a Washington outsider and someone just not used to the way you guys operate...you're one who says, you know, as so many politicians do, 'I was for it before I was against it,' or vice versa."
That clash was typical of the 90-minute debate. At the outset, Biden described how Democrats want to help homeowners and financial institutions reeling from the nation's credit crisis by listing "basic criteria" an Obama White House would follow.
"You have to focus on homeowners and folks on Main Street . . . you have to treat the taxpayers like investors in this case."
Palin gave a folksy response.
"Go to a kid's soccer game on Saturday," said the mother of five, "and turn to any parent there on the sideline and ask them, 'How are you feeling about the economy?
"And I'll betcha you're going to hear some fear in that parent's voice," she said.
Biden countered such talk with common-man touches of his own, saying that he too knew what it was like to sit around a kitchen table with his family. He mentioned having been a single dad after his first wife was killed in a car crash, and choked up as he said it.
Biden concentrated on tying McCain to the record of the Bush administration, while Palin fashioned herself and McCain as middle-class champions who'd bring change to Washington.
"You ask anybody . . . whether or not the economy or foreign policy of this administration has made them better off in the last eight years," Biden said, "and whether John McCain differs. . . . The people in my neighborhood, they get it. . . . They've been getting the short end of the stick."
"Two years ago, remember, it was John McCain who pushed so hard with the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac reform measures," said Palin, referring to the two mortgage giants that last month were seized by the federal government.
"People in the Senate . . . didn't want to listen to him and wouldn't go toward that reform that was needed then."
After Palin repeatedly referred to herself and McCain as "mavericks," Biden responded sharply, insisting that McCain has never been a maverick "on things that matter to people's lives. . . . So maverick he is not on things that matter to people at that kitchen table."
Biden said he'd worked with senators across the partisan divide — "It's fair to say that I have almost as many friends on the Republican side of the aisle as I do on the Democratic side of the aisle," he said — in trying to craft solutions in 35 years in the Senate.
It's McCain, said Biden, who's out of touch. A few weeks ago, Biden recalled, McCain declared that the fundamentals of the American economy were strong. Hours later, he said it was in crisis.
"He was talking to and he was talking about the American work force," said Palin, who then winked at the audience. "And the American work force is the greatest in this world with the ingenuity and the work ethic that is just entrenched in our workforce. That's a positive, that's encouragement, and that's what John McCain meant."
Palin insisted that Obama had voted 94 times for tax increases.
"The charge is absolutely not true," Biden said. "Using the standard that the governor uses, John McCain voted 477 times to raise taxes. It's a bogus standard."
They fought over energy, as Palin charged that Obama's vote for a comprehensive energy bill wound up giving tax breaks to big oil. Biden countered that McCain's tax cuts would benefit Exxon-Mobil and rich CEOs.
Palin got feisty. "You know what I had to do in the state of Alaska?" she said. "I had to take on those oil companies and tell them, no, you know, any of the greed there has been kind of instrumental, I guess, in their mode of operation. That wasn't going to happen in my state."
Biden chuckled. "Barack Obama voted for an energy bill because, for the first time, it had real support for alternative energy," he said.
Biden talked toughest on foreign policy. A surge of additional troops like the one in Iraq won't work in Afghanistan, he said, an opinion shared by the top U.S. military commanders in the region.
"John continues to tell us that the central war in the front on terror is Iraq," Biden said. "I promise you, if an attack comes in the homeland, it's going to come as our security services have said . . . from al Qaida planning in the hills of Afghanistan and Pakistan."
That's why, particularly in Pakistan, he said, "a stable government needs to be established."
Palin agreed that dangers lurk in many places, including Pakistan, but coolly told Biden that it was Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, as well as al-Qaeda leaders, who said Iraq is the "central (front in the) war on terror."
They also disagreed on Afghanistan. "The surge principles, not the exact strategy, but the surge principles, that have worked in Iraq need to be implemented in Afghanistan also," Palin said.
Not so, Biden said.
"Our commanding general in Afghanistan said the surge principle in Iraq will not work in Afghanistan," he said. "Not Joe Biden — our commanding general in Afghanistan."
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