Sarah Palin brought more than facts and figures to an agriculture debate in the Alaska governor's race. She packed an engaging disposition.
One of her opponents, Andrew Halcro, had memorized the complexities of the subject. He was prepared. He might as well have stared out the window during the proceedings, for all it mattered.
“She did such a great job with just the glittering generalities and filling the room with her presence that people didn't care what she said about agriculture,” Halcro says now.
“Palin's a master at spending 45 seconds telling you what color the sky is,” he adds, “and people will say, ‘That's the greatest thing I ever heard.'”
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Palin and her Democratic vice presidential rival, Joe Biden, each bring distinctive qualities and vulnerabilities to the campaign's only running-mate debate, Thursday in St.Louis. It's a potential gold mine and minefield for both.
Biden is a loquacious man of charm and detail with an agile yet unpredictable mind. He can bring the house down with a quip. Two decades ago, he brought his first presidential campaign down with a colossal faux pas in a debate at the Iowa State Fair.
The Delaware senator's debating experience stretches back to 1972 when, as Palin has noted, she was in second grade.
The first-term Alaska governor, however, is no newcomer to political debating, even if she's new to the national big leagues. In 2006, she powered through some two dozen debates, first against an incumbent governor from her own party, then against a former governor from the other side, plus other rivals.
Then as now, she was disparaged as something of a Podunk lightweight – one of the “so-called opponents,” in the dismissive words of Frank Murkowski, the GOP governor she would unseat.
Then, she held her own or better in the crush of debates, upending Alaska's political establishment in the process with a one-two punch in the primaries and fall election.
She had a way of disarming opponents that made up for her lack of experience. Biden knows something about that, too.
In his first Senate debate, when he was just 29, he tried an unusual tactic: grace over gotcha.
After his Republican opponent flubbed a question, Biden pretended he didn't know the answer, either, so as to avoid rudely upstaging him.
“I probably had better political instincts then than I have now,” Biden writes in his recent memoirs.
“Today I'd probably win the point but lose the match because I'd be too busy ripping someone's head off with the facts.”
The Palin effect, 2006
Palin hit some potholes in the blur of debates. Asked to name a good bill and a bad bill that the Alaska Legislature had passed that year, the small-town mayor drew a blank. In one debate, she proposed teaching creationism alongside evolution in schools: “Teach both.” The next day, she backtracked.
Asked what she would do about rising dropout rates, she blandly offered: “We need to get kids excited about being in schools.” Rivals rattled off specific programs they'd expand.
She skipped several debates entirely.
Even so, the former state oil-industry regulator knew the resource-ownership issues of the day and the arcana of the pipeline project that was central to the campaign. She was a quick study on other issues and generally fast on her feet when she was the lone voice on one side of an issue.
A Biden faux pas
The way Biden recalls it, he rushed to the Aug. 23, 1987, Democratic primary debate in Iowa without time to prepare a closing statement. Biden improvised at the close, reaching mentally into his stump speech and telling a story he had told before, about a coal mining family held back for generations by lack of opportunity.
Only this time, he neglected to credit the source — British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock.
Biden made it his own story, about his own family, using Kinnock's words and even his inflections. To make matters worse, he spoke as if it had all just popped into his head.
The consequences were devastating, once the similarities were exposed and a few other tallish tales he'd told were added to the mix. Biden pulled out of the campaign.