Viewers of Thursday night's debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden included a group gathered at University of Virginia in rural Wise County. Steve Inskeep watched the debate with them and talks with Renee Montagne about partygoers' impressions of the only debate between the vice presidential candidates.
This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne. The viewers of last night's vice-presidential debate included a group on a hilltop in Virginia. They were attending a debate party. At the end, they shared their thoughts with our own Steve Inskeep, who is with us now. And Steve, where exactly were you?
STEVE INSKEEP: We were at the University of Virginia's campus in Wise County, Virginia. This is in the Appalachian Mountains, hundreds of miles from the urban areas around Washington, D.C. This is a swing state, Renee, and is for the first time in decades. And so, we came here. We watched in the student center with about 15 people. It was debate party sponsored by local Republicans, so they had the McCain/Palin buttons out, and they were watching the debate, of course. But some Obama backers attended as well. So, it was a good crowd.
MONTAGNE: And what did that crowd think? What did they think? How did the candidates do?
INSKEEP: Well, afterward we sat down. I didn't ask them who won. What I did ask was what specific statements or impressions people took away from that blizzard of claims last night. I wanted to know if this added to anything that people knew, if they learned anything. And one answer came from Kim Craft (ph). She's a telephone relay operator for the deaf, and she remembered one particular statement by Sarah Palin.
Ms. KIM CRAFT (Telephone Relay Operator, Wise County, Virginia): She did address something that Biden didn't address at all, was personal responsibility, that we've gotten into, you know, blame other people for my own actions. They don't need to go out and buy houses that are way over their heads.
INSKEEP: Craft is McCain supporter. She loved that statement by Sarah Palin. Perhaps predictably, Obama supporters were less impressed by Palin, people like Matthew Cram (ph), who's a lawyer here.
Mr. MATTHEW CRAM (Lawyer, Wise County, Virginia): Senator Biden appeared more authentic, if you will. I kind of got the feeling he was drawing more upon his own experience as opposed to drawing upon some debate bullets that he was memorizing. I heard Palin going back to this litany that she would harp upon: we're the mavericks, we're the mavericks.
MONTAGNE: And that was one of the opinions that voters offered Steve Inskeep at a debate party in southwestern Virginia. And Steve, we should mention you're in a remote, rural area where income is lower than the national average. Did these folks feel like the candidates were speaking to them?
INSKEEP: Well, there was a moment in the debate where the candidates overtly tried, Renee. Sarah Palin accused Joe Biden of opposing clean-coal technology. Biden said his words had been taken out of the context. And that whole argument is about this region of the country, entirely about the politics of this region, because coal is mined here. It's a big deal, in fact, in several competitive states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. Afterwards, somewhat surprisingly, our group didn't even bring up that exchange. In fact, they hardly mentioned any of the candidates' obviously prepared zingers and one-liners and were more focused on things that did not get discussed. I heard from Denise Casey (ph), who is a railroad worker, who came to the debate party with her 11-year-old daughter, Leila (ph), and Leila sparked a heated exchange when she raised the subject of education.
Ms. LEILA CASEY: It didn't point enough about the school systems. They mentioned it once. They were talking about the teachers and systems, but they didn't say much about it.
Ms. DENISE CASEY (Railroad Worker, Weiss County, Virginia): What she's talking about is our old high schools that are in this area alone. How old are they? Big Stone Gap - their heater system went down last year.
INSKEEP: Here's where college student Michael Thacker (ph) jumped in.
Mr. MICHAEL THACKER (Student, University of Virginia at Wise): I took so many college classes, and we had books from 1992 to learn fifth-edition psychology. So, when I come here, I'm so far behind, it's not even funny.
INSKEEP: And suddenly, Renee, we were in this spirited discussion about an issue that really matters to people here, and it was actually not easy to drag them back to the superficial discussion of the theatrics on screen.
MONTAGNE: Well, did the debate change anybody's mind - even that you might have detected just a little?
INSKEEP: Well, maybe only to improve the opinions of the candidates that they already supported. Republicans were thrilled with Sarah Palin's aggressive performance. And one Democrat in our crowd who knew nothing about Joe Biden at the beginning, he said - he said he was impressed, thought that Biden elegantly walked a tightrope last night.
MONTAGNE: Steve, thanks very much. Glad to have you on the show, even just for a few minutes.
MONTAGNE: Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep. And he'll be reporting Monday on the way political activists are trying to capture the Appalachian vote.
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hide captionThe two vice presidential candidates faced off on issues such as energy and the economy during their debate.
David McNew/Getty Images
The two vice presidential candidates faced off on issues such as energy and the economy during their debate.
David McNew/Getty Images
The vice presidential candidates dueled in a highly anticipated, fast-paced and wide-ranging matchup Thursday night. In the end, both candidates met or exceeded expectations.
Analysts had worried that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a newcomer to the national scene, would implode on the stage, revealing inexperience and a lack of knowledge on the issues. She didn't, and she held her own on issues ranging from the financial meltdown to the war in Iraq.
Those same analysts also feared that Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden would give in to his tendency toward long-windedness, make verbal gaffes and appear condescending to his opponent. He did none of these things, maintaining a measured approach throughout.
Wall Street And The Bush Legacy
Biden sought to drive home the message that the Democratic ticket would bring real change after what he said was "a very deep hole" dug by the Bush administration during the past eight years. He tried repeatedly to link Republican presidential nominee John McCain's policies with those of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Palin referenced the presidency of Ronald Reagan, mentioning Reagan three times and saying that she and McCain would get government out of the way of the American people.
As did the debate between the candidates at the top of the tickets, the contest between the vice presidential hopefuls began with a series of questions about the effort to deal with the crisis on Wall Street. Moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS opened with a question about whether the bill aimed at bailing out Wall Street represented the "best or worst" of Washington.
Biden said that Wall Street has run wild during the Bush administration, and he chided McCain for saying — after the crisis had erupted — that "the fundamentals of the economy are strong." Palin said McCain had issued warnings two years ago about the unsteadiness of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Biden said it was Democratic nominee Barack Obama who two years ago issued warnings about the subprime mortgage debacle.
The debaters sparred over tax issues, with Palin asserting that Obama had voted to raise taxes 94 times. Biden said that was untrue and noted that McCain had voted the same way on procedural matters.
When Ifill asked about Obama's plan to raise taxes on people making more than $250,000 a year, Biden said it was a matter of "simple fairness" and that wealthier taxpayers would wind up paying no more under Obama's plan than they did under President Reagan. Palin called Obama's plan "redistribution" and repeated the Reagan-era mantra that government interference and regulation were more of a hindrance than a help.
Wrangling Over War Policy
The debate reached its most personal level on the issue of Iraq, because both vice presidential candidates have sons in the military: Palin's son is already in Iraq, and Biden's deploys on Friday.
Palin called the Obama plan for a withdrawal timetable "a white flag of surrender." She said that she and McCain do not support a quick pullout, saying it would be a "travesty" to "quit in Iraq." Biden responded, "With all due respect, I do not hear a plan." He said that McCain has been "dead wrong on the fundamental issues relating to the conduct of the war." Biden said that he and Obama would "end this war" and that they believe a timetable is needed to accomplish that.
Social issues occupied only a small part of the debate, as when Ifill asked whether the candidates supported equal benefits for same-sex couples. "Absolutely!" was Biden's answer. Palin said she would be wary of anything that might define marriage as anything but a union between one man and one woman. Biden said that neither he nor Obama supported same-sex marriage but that he felt he and Palin were in agreement that there should be no civil rights difference between a gay and a heterosexual couple.
When the discussion turned to energy, an area in which Palin is considered strong, the Alaska governor said Obama voted to give tax breaks to the oil industry when he supported a bill backed by the Bush administration. She said she had worked to undo those breaks on the state level. Biden commended Palin for pushing through what amounted to a "windfall profits" tax on oil companies. He said that he and Obama support a similar tax on a national basis — something that he said McCain has been unwilling to do.
Defining The VP Job: The Cheney Mold?
Ifill turned the discussion to the office the two candidates are aiming for, asking, "What does the vice president do?" Palin responded that she would help lead McCain's agenda in areas such as energy independence for America, government reform and working with families with special needs.
Biden said he would be the point person for the Obama administration's legislative initiatives in Congress. Ifill asked Palin whether, like Vice President Cheney, she believes that the vice presidency is not completely a part of the executive branch. Palin responded that the office has "much flexibility" from the Constitution. Biden responded that "Vice President Cheney has been the most dangerous vice president we've had probably in American history," and he insisted that the office is clearly part of the executive branch.
In their closing statements, the two candidates underlined the themes they had played on throughout the debate. Palin referred again to Reagan, "who said that freedom is always just one generation away from extinction." She added: "We will fight for it, and there is only one man in this race who has really ever fought for you, and that's Sen. John McCain."
Biden returned to his theme of the need for "fundamental change." He said that he and Obama will measure progress not by "whether or not we cut more regulations or how well CEOs are doing" but by "whether or not someone can pay their mortgage, whether they can send their kid to college."