No one ever remembers when the trains run on time, but they never forget the breakdowns. In Thursday’s vice presidential debate, the trains ran on time.
“The operatives in these campaigns will be watching with their hearts in their throats,” CBS analyst Jeff Greenfield said shortly before Joe Biden and Sarah Palin took positions behind their podiums.
Palin had raised some alarm among Republicans wondering whether she truly was ready for prime-time after some bumbling interview performances, while Biden has a windy, unpredictable streak that terrifies campaign managers who like to stay relentlessly on message.
In the end, both fears proved unwarranted.
“Conservatives must be breathing a little easier tonight because Sarah Palin passed a test,” Donna Brazile said on ABC. “She did her homework. … Overall, there were no moose in the headlight moments.”
Greenfield used the same analogy, substituting deer for moose.
Palin returned to the folksy, “you betcha” style of straight talk that endeared her to people at the Republican convention, and displayed a well-coached command of the facts. She didn’t always answer questions, but turned that into a point of pride, saying she may not be answering the way Biden or moderator Gwen Ifill wanted to hear, but that “I’m going to talk straight to the American people.”
“Sarah Palin was threatening to become an embarrassment to the Republican ticket,” CNN analyst David Gergen said. “I think she erased that tonight.”
Biden, for his part, was respectful of Palin and steered clear of any hint of condescension.
“He decided he was not gonna take her on directly,” MSNBC’s David Gregory said. “She challenged him, she mocked him, she chided him. He decided to train his responses and just talk about (John) McCain’s record.”
When a panel of uncommitted voters gathered by Fox News Channel and pollster Frank Luntz were asked for a show of hands on who won the debate, almost everyone picked Palin.
A click away on CNN, Soledad O’Brien asked another panel whether they had made up their mind as a result of the debate. Ten people raised their hands — one sided with McCain, and nine with Barack Obama.
Instant polls conducted by CBS and CNN about the debate reflected trends in overall opinion polls toward Obama the past couple of weeks.
A CBS News/Knowledge Networks Poll of uncommitted voters who watched the debate found 46 percent thinking Biden won, with 21 percent siding with Palin. A CNN poll found respondents judging Biden the winner by a 51 percent to 39 percent margin.
The absence of train wrecks led some pundits to wonder whether the contest, probably the most anticipated vice presidential debate in history, will quickly be forgotten.
“You’re not going to see this debate have much of an effect on this race,” NBC News analyst Chuck Todd said. “This probably won’t live much beyond a 24-hour period.”
Republican strategist Mike Murphy, on MSNBC, said the debate “became a bit of a nothing-burger.”
“The problem for John McCain is this doesn’t change the dynamics of the race, which have shifted in Obama’s favor,” Gergen said.
The main combatants will be back on the stage quickly, with the second McCain-Obama debate scheduled for next Tuesday. AP