Thursday night will be one of a few telling moments of Election ’08. On the heels of the nation’s financial despair, the testy battle between John McCain and Barack Obama’s ad messages, and the extreme ineptitude of Gov. Sarah Palin in interviews, the race could turn on its head instantly. When Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, the major party VP nominees, step to the plate, the war of public impression will once more be waged on the national scene.
The politicians in question, Senator Joe Biden and Governor Sarah Palin, have almost opposite records. Mr. Biden is a tested debater, using his logistical prowess to maneuver the legal contests in the House of Representatives. His forceful style often catches opponents off-guard, and he can shock audiences with brusque rhetoric. His Democratic allies often speak about his affinity for foot-in-mouth comments as part of the deal. Biden’s knowledge of foreign policy issues may provide levity for his extreme statements. As for his ability to relate to Everyman voters, Joe Biden can put off some with his smug attitude about experience paying dividends in politics. He can also endear them with his stories of simple Delaware life, his wife’s teaching career and his son’s engagement in military service. Campaign advisors have long thought his miscues are more positive than negative:
Those who have known Mr. Biden for a long time say they see him as a man with an equally big heart and mouth.
“He has overwhelming support here; he’s well liked,” said James M. Baker, mayor of Wilmington, Del., Mr. Biden’s home. “We forgive him every once in a while when he says something dumb — ‘Oh, that’s just Joe.’ ”
Sarah Palin is at once an incurious policy-maker, preferring to hold tight to party values, and a vivacious performer on the debate stage. The bulk of her debate contests came in 2006 when she ran for Alaska governor, unseating the incumbent Tony Knowles. The NY Times chronicled her debates, noting that where she has limited information on a subject, she has managed to divert attention from it. Although this tactic may be a discouraging prospect for her legislative finesse, it has been instrumental in her televised Alaska gubernatorial debates. Since the public debates do not operate on a point system, Palin may be the crowd favorite if she can issue some well-timed quips aimed at Barack Obama and Joe Biden.
Rather than declaring potential winners, it is more useful to explain how their planned strategies and talking points will register with voters. Where Palin may thrive sticking to a Republican script, Biden could gain ground dissecting her stance, and being the more light-hearted jovial debater of the two. In contrast, if Senator Biden fears condescending Ms. Palin too much, he may play into her hands and put the debate squarely on her terms.
Biden’s goals will be simple:
- Unleash his humor liberally without degrading Ms. Palin’s experience. If he can trip her up by asking pointed questions and forcing her to expound on vague points, he will expose her true weakness.
- Speak in direct terms about foreign policy, emphasizing the past administration’s deception and eventual mistakes.
- Lay out a financial philosophy for the Obama-Biden administration that explains how Americans can benefit in both the short and long terms.
As for Ms. Palin, her tasks seem simple enough, but subtlety in execution will go a long way:
- Use her down-home folksy mannerisms to distract from her lack of political acumen. The terms “hockey mom” and “hometown” blazed a wildfire in the American imagination and she must find ways to repeat the sentiments, if not the phrases.
- Create the image of new bold energy to oppose Biden’s time in Washington. She has to steer clear of age mentions, but invigorate viewers with some vision of America in times to come.
- Stay away from discussing the financial crisis in depth. Her talking points will include “cut spending,” “middle class,” “hard-working” and all of the words John McCain omitted from the first debate. It’s easier for her to drill the points home with her background than from McCain’s ultra-rich vantage point.
The candidate who can capably meet two of their three presentation goals will win the perception/spin game post-debate.