While everyone enthusiastically awaits the Vice Presidential debate, expecting gaffe's, misstatements, and further embarrassment for Sarah Palin, insufficient emphasis is being placed on tomorrow night's importance. There are two major reasons why I believe this debate could hugely contribute towards the eventual victor in this race:
1. John McCain was outstanding in the Presidential debate. He may have lost in every poll and dial meter, but last Friday John McCain was at his best. He brought his extensive assessment of policy issues on the subjects that suit him best politically. He savaged Obama on the issue of Iran and negotiating without pre-condition. He pivoted off the economic crisis and controlled the conversation on earmarks and spending. He emotively reached out to the American people with the substantive promise of victory in Iraq.
And, it didn't work. For the same reason John Kerry managed to win all 3 debates in 2004 and lose that election to President Bush. He wasn't likeable, and on all the issues that mattered, Obama more than held his own. McCain appeared mean, angry, and disrespectful to Obama. He repeatedly derided Obama's lack of understanding and naivety when it was patently clear that Obama had demonstrated an extensive understanding of the issues, and that the differences between him and McCain were a matter of perspective.
The next two Presidential debates will be focused on domestic policy and John McCain can either attempt to learn from his mistakes, being more cordial and respectful to Obama to compensate for his off-putting crankiness (potentially undermining his narrative that Obama is an inexperienced danger to America), or he can continue the attack orientated posture he staked out last Friday, undermining his independent and bi-partisan appeal. Either way, the chances of any game-changing debate moments for McCain have significantly receded. Barring a Reverend Wright style controversy that dramatically puts Obama on the defensive, I just don't see how McCain's debate performances can improve over the coming weeks.
2. Obama is now in a very strong position. It's the equivalent of being up 2 touchdowns, with possession of the football approaching the end of the 3rd quarter. Another touchdown now can leave the opposition with just too much to do. Likewise, failure to score and conceding a touchdown allows the opposition back into the game and turns all the momentum against you. We saw that with Obama and Hillary in Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
Obama has a national lead average of 5.3% according to RCP, and critically he is hitting 50% in many of the polls that are being released. Make no mistake, this is a significant national lead, and while Obama's support is notoriously soft, time is running out for game-changers like the Republican National Convention. Obama is also now ahead in Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, and he is extremely competitive in Missouri and Indiana. Do you know how many of these states Obama needs to win to be victorious on November 4th? If he can hold onto New Hampshire, Michigan, and Wisconsin, Obama needs to win only one of these states. That is how up against it the McCain campaign is right now.
If Biden wins emphatically, and Palin struggles, then an additional boost in the polls for Obama could essentially put this race out of McCain's reach. Likewise, short on opportunities for game-changers, this is a huge chance for the McCain campaign to get themselves back in the game. After all, debate expectations for Palin are about as low as they were before her outstanding speech at the Republican convention in August.
The Obama campaign, ahead of the curve as ever, has brilliantly insisted upon standing lecterns for the debate. This will dramatically inhibit Palin's ability to get folksy and colloqial with Biden and the moderators. The spotlight will be sharper, and there will be a greater requirement for stature.
Biden must be cautious, but authentic. Biden's strength is also his weakness. He has a big heart, he's rhetorically ambitious, and he's very sincere. As a result, sometimes he isn't particularly thoughtful. But, Biden really does care about the issues involved, plus real people and their suffering. That should be his objective, to demonstrate to the electorate his comparative experience and expertise, but to also show middle class Americans that he's on their side. He must not pro-actively engage with Palin, however, if she hits him hard, and at times she will, he can't take it lying down either. He must also leave Sarah Palin to make her own mistakes, rather than forcing them, just like Gore shouldn't have forced the issue with Bush in 2000 making himself look petty and un-presidential while Bush hovered above the fray with his wafer thin populist jargons.
But, as an aggressive tactic I think Biden should take the debate into tangential areas that Palin won't have done her homework on. On foreign policy he should talk about the tensions between India and Pakistan, or the role of Ukraine in the current tensions with Russia (as McCain tried to against Obama). On economics he should talk about the role of China as a burgeoning economic superpower. On healthcare he should talk about people who already have coverage, but can't afford the deductables, prescription drugs, and don't go to the doctor, potentially making their ailments much more severe. On women's issues he should talk about the reality of criminalizing abortion, and the way in which prior to Roe vs. Wade poor women across America risked and lost their lives getting back street abortions. Should a woman who has been raped and chooses to have an abortion be criminalized? That is the reality of Sarah Palin's position and that's the context within which the issue should be framed.
Finally, here are some examples of how effective Sarah Palin can be as a debater.
Here are some examples of how little she knows about national and international issues:
My prediction is that the Obama campaign will have trained Joe well, and after an aggressive start Palin will slow down to be undone by policy issues beyond her breadth of knowledge. George Bush was the great misunderestimated debater, whose political skills and breadth of general policy and world knowledge was actually much more expansive than he was given credit for. This time tomorrow we'll know how well Sarah Palin crammed for this test, and if she has also been underestimated by Democrats.
Of course, a completely different point would be to ask whether any potential President should need to cram for these basic issues at all. Especially, at such a time of national crisis and war.