Debate offers big risks, big rewards

For an audition to be second fiddle, Thursday's debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden offers unusually large pitfalls – and promise.

A huge TV audience is expected for the debate, to be telecast from 9 to 10:30 p.m. And already, 3,100 media credentials have been issued, the most the Commission on Presidential Debates ever needed in seven vice presidential debates it has hosted.

The attention is driven by the public's fascination with Palin, the first-term Alaska governor that Republican presidential candidate John McCain plucked from relative political obscurity to be his running mate.

Initially, Palin was praised as a superb political communicator for the delivery of her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention four weeks ago. She energized the party's conservative base, which had reservations about McCain, and quickly showed she could outdraw McCain on the stump – a likely factor in their decision to appear together more often than running mates usually do.

But a series of shaky Palin television interviews have left even some conservatives questioning whether she is ready to be vice president.

Palin's performance against Biden, the Delaware Democrat with 35 years in the Senate, could restore her initial luster or seriously weaken the GOP ticket.

Palin left the campaign trail Monday to prepare at McCain's ranch in Sedona, Ariz. She is being coached by McCain's top campaign strategist, Steve Schmidt, as well as S.C. native Tucker Eskew, along with Nicolle Wallace and Mark Wallace, all veterans of President Bush's political operation.

McCain strategists are well aware Palin's glowing image has been badly bruised since the convention. She is under heavy pressure to show a command of issues.

“I don't think she can get away with comments on foreign policy like she knows about Russia because it's near Alaska,” Minnesota-based Republican strategist Tom Homer said.

Biden was prepping at home in Wilmington, Del. On hand to help were top Obama campaign strategists David Axelrod, Anita Dunn and Ron Klain, who helped coach Vice President Al Gore four years ago.

A veteran debater after his Senate experience and his own two short-lived presidential campaigns, Biden has his own set of challenges.

His first presidential bid in 1987 ended after he appropriated the life story of British politician Neil Kinnock during a Democratic primary debate in Iowa. Even now, his off-the-cuff speaking style still produces blunders, as when he mused recently that Hillary Clinton might have made a better running mate for Obama.

And Biden will be debating a female candidate who has excited many women and elicited sympathy over some attacks perceived as sexist.

Biden spokesman David Wade expressed confidence.

“Joe Biden debated Sen. Clinton 12 times in the presidential race and those debates were substantive and hard hitting, and he debates strong women in the United States Senate,” Wade said.

Biden has spoken to Clinton and California Sen. Barbara Boxer for advice on how best to debate a woman. And Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm was portraying Palin in his practice debates.