Palin, Pundits And Partisans: A Made-For-TV Drama

About 15 minutes into Thursday's quick-paced debate, Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin made it clear she wasn't terribly concerned about participating in a formal debate at all.

Palin paused to share her stage directions with the audience.

"I may not answer the questions the way that either the moderator or you want to hear," she said, glancing at her Democratic rival, Joe Biden. "But I'm going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record also."

And for 90 minutes, the Alaska governor seemed quite happy doing just that. Oh, she also traded jabs with her opponent, the silver-maned, silver-tongued Biden, a longtime senator from Delaware. But because of previous questions surrounding Palin's very fitness for office, Biden was almost an afterthought.

For the record, Biden was skilled, in firm command of the facts, and given his reputation for contracting foot-in-mouth disease, surprisingly gaffeless. He aimed his fire at GOP presidential candidate John McCain, not the first-term Alaska governor.

But I digress.

Palin looked right into the camera, winked, smiled, joked and conveyed just by how she carried herself that, doggone it, this normal non-beltway professional would be perfectly comfortable being the understudy for the most powerful person on Earth.

Gone was the halting candidate caught in the headlights in interviews with Katie Couric of CBS News. Gone, for the most part, were those flashcard talking points. Palin no longer seemed as though she were reading from a public policy Mad Lib, startled by each new modifier. Instead, Palin largely seemed to have fluency in the issues she was discussing, which sounds offensive even to acknowledge, but, seriously, did you even see the latest Couric interview?

Moderator Under Scrutiny

That's not to say Palin actually answered the questions posed by moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS. She didn't always bother. And why should she have? The abbreviated periods mandated by the event's format hardly required it. And Ifill made scant effort to force her to do so. In fact, Ifill frequently raised general topics rather than posing carefully crafted questions. Sometimes Ifill even suggested the answers in her questions.

But Ifill found herself in a no-win situation last night. She was the subject of headlines and unflattering scrutiny over the previous two days, when it somehow surfaced that she is writing a book on the nation's new crop of less ideological black leaders. The book is due out on Inauguration Day, and the subtitle is Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.

Ifill dismissed the issue, saying she should be judged on her record, but the Drudge Report gave the revelation screaming headline treatment.

Conservative talk show hosts were outraged, saying Ifill had a financial interest in Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama's success. Journalists alternately questioned the choice of Ifill by the bipartisan debate commission and defended her.

"We've got three people to watch tonight: the two candidates and the moderator," Fox News Washington Managing Editor Brit Hume told viewers before the debate, though he had vouched for Ifill's fairness earlier in the week. McCain cited Ifill's reputation as well but ultimately said she should never have been selected as moderator.

How was Ifill's forthcoming book discovered this week? Hard to know, other than the fact that it's been cited by name since July by such little-known news outlets as The Associated Press, Time magazine and The Washington Post.

Republicans may well have been unaware of the book and its subject when the two sides settled on Ifill as moderator. But surely it was no accident that the book's existence was raised just before the debate, to put the moderator on the defensive — and the party faithful on a hair trigger — just as the Republican vice presidential candidate was reeling.

Ifill ultimately treated both candidates equally, but more as a crossing guard than a traffic cop.

The Expectations Game

Political coverage leading up to the debate had focused so squarely on Palin that Biden would have had to paraglide nude onto the White House grounds while plagiarizing passages of the Communist Manifesto in order to get full-blown gaffe coverage.

And predictably, on Thursday itself, there was a lot of partisan posturing ahead of the debate. Democratic TV surrogates were seeking to tamp down expectations of Biden, a skilled public speaker, while Republicans were almost giving pep talks about Palin.

Sample liberal: "He's a good debater — but this is different," said Democratic strategist Paul Begala on CNN. "There's a lot of men that's wrecked their careers while debating women. ... He's got to be careful about that."

Sample conservative: "Everything I hear from the McCain campaign and the people who have been involved in the debate preparation is that the real Sarah Palin is back," said Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard on Fox News. "She has to sell herself. She has to vindicate McCain" — for picking her.

Jeff Toobin of CNN and The New Yorker, a liberal magazine that just endorsed Obama, challenged the game itself.

"Who's in charge of these expectations? Who sets them? It's nonsense," Toobin said. "It's a phony concept. Because these two people, as far as I'm concerned, are on the same playing field. One of them is going to be vice president of the United States. They should be evaluated on the same scale, by the same standard."

At the debate's end, Palin made sure once again to cite her subtext out loud. "I like being able to answer these tough questions without the filter even of the mainstream media kind of telling viewers what they just heard," Palin said. "I'd rather be able to just speak to the American people like we just did."

The debate, naturally, gave way to a flood of media analysts, partisan surrogates, pollsters and anchors chattering away happily all over the television dial about what viewers just heard. Pundits largely scored it a good night for Palin, because she beat those pundit-driven expectations that Toobin scorns. But for what it's worth, instant polls cited by those same networks found that Biden had connected with more uncommitted voters.

One enduring lesson: The filter always gets the last word.

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