MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. This Thursday, a much-anticipated event. Sarah Palin and Joe Biden will meet on the stage in St. Louis for the only vice-presidential debate of this campaign. Governor Palin has done only a few media interviews since she was picked as John McCain's running mate, and her weak performance in an interview last week with Katie Couric of CBS has led some, including Republicans, to call on Palin to step down from the ticket.

For his part, Senator Biden is known for gaffes and long-winded answers that can get him in trouble. We've called on two political strategists who've prepped candidates for debates to talk about Thursday's meetup. Jennifer Palmieri worked on John Edwards's two presidential campaigns as well as in the Clinton White House. Welcome.

Ms. JENNIFER PALMIERI (Senior Vice President of Communications, Center for American Progress): Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: And Stuart Stevens was on the debate prep team for both George Bush and Dick Cheney, among other candidates. Welcome to you.

Mr. STUART STEVENS (Partner, Stevens and Schriefer Group): Great to be here.

BLOCK: Let's start first by talking about Sarah Palin, because it does seem like all eyes will be on her this week. Jennifer Palmieri, what does Sarah Palin need to do?

Ms. PALMIERI: Well, I think that she has two options: One is that she can try to convince people that she's - can meet the commander-in-chief test. The other is, she can spend the time beating up on Obama. I suspect that the campaign will decide to double down on the attack strategy. She was very effective on that at the convention, and the idea that you're going to prepare her in the next two days or even over the past week, to pass the commander-in-chief test for most voters, I think it's difficult. There's a segment of voters that like her, I think she should talk to them.

BLOCK: And Stuart Stevens, do you agree that that's the best strategy for Sarah Palin?

Mr. STEVENS: No, I would disagree. I actually think that the most interesting element of Sarah Palin is her ability to legitimately speak to middle-class voters. She's someone who can really speak from personal experience and from the heart, of what it's like to raise a large family, not on a lot of money, and to be at the mercy of large economic forces beyond your control. So I would suggest to her - or I'd advise her, to really focus on that.

BLOCK: But then, what happens when the questions turn to Iran or Russia or Pakistan, Stuart?

Mr. STEVENS: Well, I think that the key here is the structure of this debate. She is really going to be- it's more of a dual conversation than a debate.

BLOCK: Right.

Mr. STEVENS: And she's going to be speaking to Gwen Ifill. She has to have a comfort level there. I think that the goal would be not to make news, which is often, for any debate, you don't want to make news. I don't think you want the headline to be a foreign policy statement by Sarah Palin, if for no other reason than she's vice president. I think that she has to be consistent on it. She has to be firm and she has to seem confident on it.

BLOCK: Jennifer Palmieri, I wonder if you think the bar is set so low for Sarah Palin, that she's maybe suffering the soft bigotry of low expectations in this debate coming up, and she can only succeed by that standard?

Mr. PALMIERI: I think there's a real element to that and I think that she will, you know, this is- in some ways, I think Stuart is right. It's as if they're simultaneous interviews, it's as if Joe Biden is doing an interview with Gwen Ifill and Sarah Palin is doing an interview with Gwen Ifill. I don't think Sen. Biden is going to try to engage Governor Palin and I think that even though it's a debate, she actually has time to speak more than she does in a one-on-one interview. She was a very good debater, I've watched the 2006 debate that she did in the Alaska governor's race, and she was very comfortable, very effective.

BLOCK: Stuart, what do you think the strategy is for Senator Biden? He's been debating since his first race in 1972 when Sarah Palin was eight years old. Does he take her on directly? Does he keep his focus on John McCain?

Mr. STEVENS: I think he keeps his focus on John McCain, I mean, far be it for me to advise Senator Biden, but I expect that he will go directly to John McCain and be able to speak, as he can, as a peer with John McCain. It's the upside of him having been in the Senate for a long time. And I think that he'll do that and probably be very effective at it.

BLOCK: And if we're thinking about tone, Jennifer, I would think that Sen. Biden would have to be very mindful of seeming condescending or patronizing to Sarah Palin. We saw this come up during the Democratic primary with Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama's perceived tone as being one of condescension, Jennifer?

Ms. PALMIERI: Yeah, I do think that he needs to be- and, you know, this is not news to him that he needs to be careful on that. I know that the campaign does think that you need to let Biden be Biden and, you know, on that end too, don't try to restrict him or script him too much, either. I think that he has proven the ability to be disciplined, I'm sure that he'll be on his best behavior, and you know, I think that with Sarah Palin, I would encourage her to go out and actually do a public event on Thursday because she seems to get energy and confidence from that. I think you want Joe Biden to be feeling that he needs to be very cautious. I think you want him to be, you know - sort of expectations to be reversed so you don't want him to be too comfortable.

BLOCK: You know, I want to talk about what's been going on in the columns and in news accounts about Sarah Palin and the fact that she's been largely sheltered from the media and they're questioning whether that has backfired. William Kristol, conservative columnist, has written a column urging John McCain to liberate Palin from former Bush aides who have put her into a defensive crouch, to free her to use her political talents and communicate in her own voice. Stuart Stevens, do you think that's good advice or is she better off being sheltered?

Mr. STEVENS: Well, I think that you have to dance with the one who brung ya here, and if you believe in Sarah Palin enough to put her on the ticket, as clearly Sen. McCain did, I think you have got to let her go out there. I'm sort of with Kristol on this.

Ms. PALMIERI: The weird thing about this is she's getting worse, not better. You know, her Charlie Gibson interview that which was, probably two and a half weeks ago was not great. But the Couric interview was among the worst I've seen. She clearly is being- I mean, I've done it to candidates, she's been over-prepared, they're trying to stuff too many facts in her head. You can see her trying to grasp for a particular phrase that she was probably told to, to recite. And I think, probably more oxygen for her would be better.

BLOCK: Stuart Stevens and Jennifer Palmieri, thanks to you both.

Ms. PALMIERI: Thanks, Melissa.

Mr. STEVENS: Thank you.

BLOCK: Republican media strategist Stuart Stevens has worked on debate prep for both George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and Democratic strategist Jennifer Palmieri has prepped both John Edwards and Bill Clinton for debates.

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