WASHINGTON — Sarah Palin gave as good as she got, but will it be enough?
The first-term Alaska governor, a Republican, gave a sharper performance in her 90-minute debate with Democratic vice presidential rival Joe Biden than she has in recent TV interviews, which have drawn comedy show ridicule, scorn from some fellow conservatives and a dramatic drop in trust from voters.
But she didn't score the kind of dramatic breakthrough that she did when she burst onto the national stage with a strong, in-your-face speech at the Republican National Convention. This time, her opponent was there to answer back, and he argued his case forcefully as well.
Ultimately, both candidates played to their strengths — she the plain-talking hockey mom with a familiar language and style, and he the veteran insider with a fluency in policy, but also a common touch.
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Each worked to shore up weaknesses. She did it by talking with readiness, if not ease, on subjects ranging from health care tax credits to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He did it by striving, not always successfully, to avoid talking down to people.
For Palin, the stakes were enormous as the McCain-Palin ticket falls behind in polls, both nationally and in many battleground states. Just hours before the debate, the McCain-Palin campaign said it would shift money and staff out of the battleground state of Michigan, a state they'd hope to take back from the Democrats.
She went on the attack early and often, accusing the Obama-Biden ticket of naivete in foreign policy and tax-and-spend policies domestically, which she said would cost jobs and hurt the economy.
She also spoke in the folksy style that underscored her distance, geographically and stylistically, from Washington.
"Say it ain't so," she said to Biden at one point.
To illustrate a point about the impacts of the Wall Street mess, she urged listeners to "go to a kids' soccer game on Saturday and turn to any parent on the sideline, and I bet you you're going to hear fear in that parent's voice."
Asked to say what promises she might have to break because of the Wall Street mess at another point, she winked and said, "How long have I been at this, like five weeks? So there hasn't been a whole lot that I've promised, except to do what is right for the American people."
It delighted some conservatives who've grown anxious about her performance in past days. She also appeared better versed in policy than she has in some of the TV interviews. But she often appeared to look down at her notes and sometimes appeared eager to move past one subject to another where she felt more comfortable.
Pressed by moderator Gwen Ifill to respond to a Biden point on bankruptcy regulations, she said, "that is not so, but because that's just a quick answer, I want to talk about, again, my record on energy versus your ticket's energy ticket, also."
Biden was sharp, often more agile than his opponent, digging deeper into domestic and foreign policies that he knows well from his 35 years in the Senate.
At one point he used a compliment to Palin on imposing an oil company tax to criticize her running mate. "Look, I agree with the governor. She imposed a windfall profits tax up there in Alaska. That's what Barack Obama and I want to do. We want to be able to do for all of you Americans, give you back 1,000 bucks, like she's been able to give back money to her folks back there." But John McCain won't do it, he said.
Biden at times appeared to struggle against appearing condescending, saying at one point that a policy was "a little complicated," and twice repeating himself and talking slower so people could understand.
He approached the debate carefully, addressing Palin formally as "the governor" while referring to others by their first names, a familiar "John" for McCain, "Gwen" for moderator Gwen Ifill.
Palin, once a shot of energy for McCain's campaign, in recent days had turned into a drag. She still excites fellow conservatives and Republicans. But stumbling performances in a few television interviews drew barbs from some conservative columnists and raised doubts among independent voters. At the same time, a questionable campaign strategy largely shielding her from the media left her with about the same television air time as biting parodies by Saturday Night Live's Tina Fey.
The impact was a sharp reversal in Palin's standing.
In three weeks, the ranks of voters who think Palin's qualified to become president plunged from 52 percent to 37 percent, a 15 point drop, according to polls by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan research group.
At the same time, the number of people who think she's not qualified jumped from 39 percent to 51 percent.
Palin entered the debate with some strengths over Biden. Polls showed swing voters — those not yet committed to either ticket — gave her the edge over Biden for honesty, being down-to-Earth and for being less arrogant.
Swing voters gave Biden the early edge for being well-informed.
Biden had challenges of his own, most notably his tendency to come across as arrogant and elite, and to stick his foot in his mouth. That was particularly dangerous facing a woman.
The Pew poll this week found, for example, that one out of three swing voters think he's arrogant, and just 50 percent think he's down to Earth. In both cases, swing voters gave Palin much better marks.
Still Biden's challenges probably weren't as pressing for three key reasons:
_ The Obama-Biden ticket is now widely seen as leading in the race.
_ Biden has not had the same difficulty convincing voters he's qualified to step into the presidency if necessary.
_ Voters don't think it would be necessary for Biden to move up as much as they think that about Palin. That's because Biden's boss would be the 47-year-old Obama; Palin's would be the 72-year-old McCain.
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