Let me confess that I was genuinely unnerved by Sarah Palin's performance at the Republican convention. Given her audience and the needs of the moment, I believe Governor Palin's speech was the most effective political communication I have ever witnessed. Here, finally, was a performer who—being maternal, wounded, righteous and sexy—could stride past the frontal cortex of every American and plant a three-inch heel directly on that limbic circuit that ceaselessly intones "God and country." If anyone could make Christian theocracy smell like apple pie, Sarah Palin could.
Then came Palin's first television interview with Charles Gibson. I was relieved to discover, as many were, that Palin's luster can be much diminished by the absence of a teleprompter. Still, the problem she poses to our political process is now much bigger than she is. Her fans seem inclined to forgive her any indiscretion short of cannibalism. However badly she may stumble during the remaining weeks of this campaign, her supporters will focus their outrage upon the journalist who caused her to break stride, upon the camera operator who happened to capture her fall, upon the television network that broadcast the good lady's misfortune—and, above all, upon the "liberal elites" with their highfalutin assumption that, in the 21st century, only a reasonably well-educated person should be given command of our nuclear arsenal.
Apparently, though, the McCain campaign is worried precisely that more people will take Harris' view and see Palin as unable spontaneously to handle tough questions. The New York Times is reporting that, whereas the Obama-McCain debate will be more back-and-forth between the candidates, the Biden-Palin debate will be more structured:
At the insistence of the McCain campaign, the Oct. 2 debate between the Republican nominee for vice president, Gov. Sarah Palin, and her Democratic rival, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., will have shorter question-and-answer segments than those for the presidential nominees, the advisers said. There will also be much less opportunity for free-wheeling, direct exchanges between the running mates.
McCain advisers said they had been concerned that a loose format could leave Ms. Palin, a relatively inexperienced debater, at a disadvantage and largely on the defensive.
In a year in which we are hearing the words "most watched" to describe every new speech and announcement, these debates will likely fall into the same category. Biden, who is said to have been comfortable with just about any proposed format, is clearly the more experienced policy debater. He's also been a part of several of the debates among Democratic candidates. But one might expect, despite Palin's inexperience, for the McCain campaign to be a bit less cautious. If Palin sticks to her points and keeps a cooler head than Biden, which may not be hard given his penchant for overstatement and offensive gaffes, she could conceivably hold her own with him and possibly set a trap he could walk into, whatever the format. With so many people watching and with so much at stake in this election, it's a shame we won't see a more authentic exchange between Biden and Palin.
As it stands with the more staid format, if Biden keeps a cool head, it's hard to imagine him being bested by Palin. The media commentary around the debate will provide constant reminders of the fact that it was set up to protect Palin.