While both vice presidential candidates achieved their goals Thursday night, the stakes were much higher and the bar was much lower for Sarah Palin. So, in the contest of low expectations, Palin won.
Joe Biden's task was to attack. Palin's was to attack, connect and stick to her folksy script.
If nothing else, the first-term Alaska governor got past her raft of nonsensical and meandering answers in evening news interviews with Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson, the spoofs by “Saturday Night Live” and the mockery of late-night comics.
From her first words, Palin sought to connect with voters whose faith in her qualifications has waned. She sprinkled down-home phrases throughout her answers – “bless their hearts” and “darn right.” Americans weren't just people, they were “Joe Six-Pack” and “hockey moms.”
And who needs polls, she suggested, when there are youth soccer games with parents on the sidelines?
“I'll betcha you're going to hear some fear in that parent's voice,” Palin said.
She defended Republican John McCain from Biden's litany of criticisms and took Biden to task over both his record and that of Democrat Barack Obama.
And yet, it wasn't a perfect performance.
Palin was shaky at times on less familiar issues. Not even halfway through the debate, she was asked about subprime mortgages but maneuvered back to the issue of energy, where she was clearly more comfortable – and where she had her lines down. It appeared to be a nonsequitur.
“I want to talk about again my record on energy versus your ticket's energy ticket also,” she said.
She twice referred to the commanding U.S. general in Afghanistan as “Gen. McClellan.”
In fact, his name is Gen. David McKiernan and, as Biden said, he called this week for the U.S. and its allies to rush more troops “as quickly as possible” to Afghanistan and warn that the fighting there could worsen before it gets better.
And there was this slip on the financial crisis: “It's a toxic mess, really, on Main Street that's affecting Wall Street.”
She was adept at not answering questions and stuck to breezy sound bites, frequently looking to her notes.
At one point, she acknowledged her failure to answer questions directly, telling Biden: “I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people.”
Palin's head bobbed from notes on her podium to Biden as she rattled off criticisms of the Democratic ticket – doing so with a smile and a conversational tone.
Biden was critical from the start, accusing President Bush of overseeing “the worst economic policies we've ever had.” Often tagged as undisciplined, Biden stuck to his talking points.
The Delaware senator criticized McCain over his conflicting economic statements. “That doesn't make John McCain a bad guy, but it does point out he's out of touch,” Biden said.
He also accused Palin of distorting Obama's record, and said: “Let's get straight who's been right and wrong” on Iraq.
“John McCain has been dead wrong,” Biden said before trying his hand at folksiness. “I love him. As my mother would say, ‘God love him, but he's been dead wrong.'”
Seeking to reach out to blue-collar workers, Biden also noted his middle-class roots in cities such as “Scranton, Claymont, Wilmington, the places I grew up.” And, he told a story of “a guy named Joey” at the local gas station who says he never has enough money to fill up his gas tank.
As the debate ended, Palin noted she likes “to answer the question without the filter of the mainstream media.”
The message may be a preview of her campaign narrative in the final stretch – ignore her uneven performance with TV news anchors and consider how she spoke to the nation when it counted.
The big question: Will the country see Palin relatively unscripted again or will McCain's team keep her under wraps until Election Day – happy to leave this lasting impression?