Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska and Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware sparred Thursday night over the economy, Iraq and social issues in a vice presidential debate in which both claimed they were agents of change for a nation in financial crisis.
Palin displayed more confidence and fluency than she did in recent television interviews and deployed a populist tone, even as she discussed such complex issues as the subprime mortgage crisis.
“Darn right it was the predator lenders,” Palin said in response to a question from the debate's moderator, Gwen Ifill of PBS, about whether such lenders were to blame for the economic crisis.
Biden often chose not to engage Palin directly, instead turning his fire on Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, whom he sought to portray as erratic in his response to the economic crisis and isolated from the concerns of most Americans.
“Well, you know, until two weeks ago – it was two Mondays ago – John McCain said at 9 in the morning that the fundamentals of the economy were strong,” Biden said.
“Nine o'clock, the economy was strong; 11 that same day, two Mondays ago, John McCain said that we have an economic crisis. That doesn't make John McCain a bad guy, but it does point out he's out of touch.”
The event at Washington University in St. Louis was Palin's debut in a debate of candidates for national office. In contrast, Biden participated in 14 before he dropped out of the presidential race on Jan. 3.
It was watched by many millions of Americans eager to see how the self-described “hockey mom” with scant national experience would fare against Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a voluble, gaffe-prone 35-year veteran of Washington.
For many viewers, the debate had a certain Indianapolis 500 quality in the sense that at any moment there could be an instant conflagration.
Facing low expectations because of her performance in the television interviews, Palin instead went toe-to-toe with Biden at many points.
“How long have I been at this, like five weeks,” she said. “So there hasn't been a whole lot I have promised, except to do what is right for the American people, put government back on the side of the American people, stop the greed and corruption on Wall Street and the rescue plan has got to include that massive oversight that Americans are expecting and deserving.”
Palin, in talking about the tax policies of Democratic nominee Barack Obama, referred to comments Biden made last month that it would be “patriotic” for upper-income taxpayers to again pay the higher tax rates they did in the 1990s.
“That's not patriotic,” she said of the idea. What's patriotic, she said, is “saying, ‘Government, you're not always the solution. Too often you're the problem.' ”
Biden took a swipe at Palin as he went after McCain's health care plan, which would give families a $5,000 tax credit to help them buy insurance but would make employer-provided benefits taxable.
“I call that the ultimate bridge to nowhere,” he said, invoking the infamous, pork barrel project in Alaska that Palin initially supported and then opposed.
Palin returned again and again to energy policy, faulting “East Coast politicians” for failing to allow more oil drilling in Alaska. She did not cite her differences with McCain on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, which she supports but her running mate opposes.
When Palin, who has expressed doubts in the past that global warming is caused by man, was asked what she thinks about climate change, she continued to express doubts.
“I'm not one to attribute every activity of man to the changes in the climate,” she said. “There is something to be said, also, for man's activities, but also for the cyclical temperature changes on our planet.”
She said she did not want to argue about its causes, and preferred to focus on what should be done.
Biden was more direct about what he thinks the causes are. “I think it is man-made,” he said.
“If you don't understand what the cause is,” he said, “it's virtually impossible to come up with a solution.”
The debate also grew contentious when the subject of Iraq came up.
“We will end this war,” Biden said. “For John McCain, there is no end in sight.”
Palin retorted, “your plan is a white flag of surrender.”
The Alaska governor noted that Biden had once said Obama wasn't ready to be commander in chief, “and I know again that you opposed the move that he made to try to cut off funding for the troops and I respect you for that.”
Biden responded that McCain, too, had voted against funding, and said the Republican presidential candidate had been “dead wrong on the fundamental issues relating to the conduct of the war.”