Let's say you just arrived back in the U.S. from five weeks abroad, perhaps in a remote location with no access to news of America.
And let's say you tuned in to the vice presidential debate without preconceptions about either the Republican, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, or the Democrat, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware.
What would you make of what you saw?
Here was Biden, a man in his mid-60s working hard to preserve his dignity and govern his tongue. He kept it up for 90 minutes while also displaying some verve and flashing a warm smile. The more you knew about Joe Biden and his usual tendency to spiel on after making a point, the more you would have been impressed.
What's more, he seemed to have some real feelings and easy familiarity with issues and recent history.
But what of this woman? You would have to have been amazed to see her, given the political climate and expectations when you left in August. You would sense immediately that this unfamiliar face was the focal point of the evening, lighting up the stage and romancing the camera.
Palin was clearly two decades younger and, it must be said, strikingly attractive for a governor of any state. She also seemed the hunter through much of the evening, full of rhetorical energy and prepared to make her case in her own terms. She took the fight to her opponent from the moment she introduced herself and asked if she could call him Joe.
She also laid claim to the sympathies of the television audience, saying her answers might not please her opponent or moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS's NewsHour but that she was going to connect directly with the American people. Indeed, she spent the entire 90 minutes talking to the camera lens.
Sufficient are Palin's talent and skill that she was aggressive without being off-putting. She seemed eager and ready to engage on a range of issues, especially because she was asked only to hold forth on her positions and not to produce any specific information.
She had memorable phrases — from "drill baby drill" to "white flag of surrender" — and a lively demeanor that just wouldn't quit.
But did she seem to belong on that stage, poised to be a heartbeat away from the Oval Office?
That may be a question no one can answer in innocence. After just five weeks in the national spotlight, Palin has become a pivot point in American politics, defining our great divide. For those who have decided to believe in her as a rustic gem, a Harry Truman for our times, she represents the inherent, exceptional goodness of the American people.
There is a kind of naive genius in this national myth, and it wields great power, especially when associated with a sudden, new face. Something of the same dynamic has propelled the very different candidacy of the Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama.
But on this night in St. Louis, the onus was on Palin. Did she prove she was ready to be president? Even her supporters would probably not go that far. Did she prove she was ready to be vice president? That depends on whether you think the qualifications for president-in-waiting are substantially lower.
What Sarah Palin did seem to prove is that she's qualified to be a vice presidential candidate. She is back to being at least a neutral factor in McCain's election equation, after three weeks as a skyrocket and two more falling back to Earth.
Proving herself worthy of her place on the ticket is significant because she failed to clear that bar in her recent disastrous interviews with Katie Couric on the CBS Evening News. Calls for her to step aside for the sake of the party may have been few and far between, but Internet blogs and talk radio can accelerate and amplify doubts overnight. For her sake, and McCain's, it was crucial that she prove herself by performing well against Biden.
That she did, at least for her partisans. And that was enough.