The opening words set the tone for the evening. Words unheard by the audience and uttered even before the debate began. Sarah Palin and Joe Biden came out from the wings and shook hands. "Nice to meet you," Palin chirped into her rival's ear. "Hey, can I call you Joe?" He looked somewhat irritated before charmingly replying. "You can call me Joe."
And so began the most important TV debate that any two vice-presidential candidates have probably ever taken part in: folksy, jovial, respectful, almost friendly -- and yet there was still a subtle charge in the air. Palin soon made it clear why she needed to be on first name terms with Biden: to use it against him.
As Biden once again took a shot at Republican presidential nominee John McCain, Palin shook her head disapprovingly like a strict mom: "Say it ain't so Joe, there you go again " It was an allusion to the famous line used by Ronald Regan in a 1980 presidential debate when his "There you go again!" caused Jimmy Carter to flounder. Palin had obviously studied the sentence and for a moment she showed her true face: smiling -- but ice cold.
For both candidates there was an enormous amount at stake. Republican Sarah Palin, 44, had to overcome the terrible impression she has made over the past few miserable weeks when her performance in several unsuccessful TV interviews saw her crash from a phenomenon to a laughing stock. Would the governor of Alaska mess up the debate like she had her CBS interview when she justified her foreign policy competence on the fact that her state was close to Russia? That could have signalled the end of McCain's White House ambitions.
Or would the Democrat Joe Biden, 65, live up to his reputation as a "Gaffe Machine" and say something stupid or, even worse, scold his rival with a careless derogatory comment -- and send millions of Americans into the arms of McCain for good?
The End of the Sarah Palin Circus
The tension was palpable. The whole campus at Washington University, St. Louis -- the "Gateway to the West" at the crossing of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers -- was swarming with the excited supporters from both camps. Students surrounded two figures made out of metal, a red one (for Republican John McCain) and a blue one (for Democrat Barack Obama). They moved the puppets with wires, getting them to fight each other like boxers. There was no winner.
There was a similar conclusion to the real debate. After one and a half hours what stuck in the mind was not what happened but what had not happened. Both candidates fought bravely, neither stuck exactly to the truth, neither "lost," and neither made a disastrous mistake -- and both sides claimed their candidate as the clear winner.
The main thing is that after all the hype the controversy over Palin will now be put to rest. This debate marked the end of the Sarah Palin circus. From now on the focus will on be on the real issues -- and that is far from good news for McCain.
Palin managed to exceed expectations that had been extremely low and that her camp had in recent days set even lower. She succeeded in rattling through all the populist talking points that had been drummed into her -- looking directly into the camera, accompanied by a wink -- and could redeem herself without saying any thing substantial (or embarrassing).
Meanwhile Biden didnt make any stupid remark, was a complete gentleman, full of expert knowledge and at one stage even became somewhat emotional. Otherwise he remained so cool that a CNN graphic monitoring the enthusiasm of a group of undecided voters in Ohio shown during the debate was sometimes as flat as an ECG after cardiac arrest.
In the end Palin managed to avoid the much-feared catastrophe. "She stopped the hemorrhage," senior Democrat Bill Richardson admitted. The bearded former governor of New Mexico supports Obama and has been hitting the campaign trail on his behalf.
It is doubtful whether Palin's performance will be enough -- the status quo is playing in Obama's favor at the moment. The latest polls show that voters are leaning back toward him in light of the economic and financial crises. On Thursday night it emerged that McCain has given up on winning the working-class swing state of Michigan. He is pulling out his campaign workers and conceding the state to Obama -- an anticipated defeat that is highly symbolic and that on any other day would have dominated the headlines.
But the 3,100 journalists -- who were more riveted by this vice-presidential debate than ever before -- were on the lookout for other headlines. Palin didn't stumble though: Her meticulously prepared phrases shot out like machine gun fire, without full stops or commas, and often without context, syntax or logic.
But the barrage of words was often unrelated to the question at hand. And Palin was proud: "I may not answer the question that either moderator or you want to hear but I'm going to talk straight to the American people," she said. This exceptionally brazen comment, which was buried in the flood of words, recalled the rigid stance of the Bush administration: We don't give a damn about rules.
So Palin cleverly sidestepped tricky questions. Like the one on her doubts about whether global warming was a man-made problem, to which she gave her standard retort: "I don't want to argue about the causes."
Palin adorned her answers with hearty folk idioms, the buzzwords of middle America: "country first", "hockey moms" "Joe Six Pack" "close to victory" "Ronald Reagan" (twice), "Main Street" (three times), "wall street corruption," "maverick" (six times) and the Republican mantra "taxes" (18 times).
But Biden also tried to sell himself as a man of the people. He spoke of the humble circumstances of his childhood, twice referring to "Scranton, Claymont, Wilmington, the places I grew up" -- and which usefully lie in the blue collar states of Pennsylvania and Delaware.
Neither made any real blunders. But Palin was left to play catch up on international politics: Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Middle-East, nuclear proliferation. This is when her evasive, canned phrases came fastest, and once she even stuttered helplessly.
Biden, who could have ruthlessly picked her arguments to pieces, spared her and directed his attacks at McCain. He had a moment of glory, showing himself as a real person and speaking of the death of his first wife and his daughter in a car accident in 1972, which also injured his two sons. "I understand what it's like to be a single parent," he said, and swallowed, on the brink of tears. "I understand what it's like as a parent to wonder what it's like if your kid's going to make it."
It had only just finished when the top strategists and spin doctors from both camps began to lay the foundations for the last few weeks of campaigning. The message from Obama: Palin didn't manage to distance herself and McCain enough from George W. Bush. The message from McCain: Biden couldn't match the freshness of the Republican vice-candidate.
The first polls pointed to Biden as the clear winner of the debate. By then Sarah Palin was addressing thousands of cheering supporters from a stage at the other end of the university campus. "That was a really good debate," she said. "I am so proud."