Low Expectations, Critical Role For Palin In Debate If Sarah Palin has a Dan Quayle-like deer-in-the-headlights moment on Thursday, it could very well decide who wins on Nov. 4. The vice presidential debate takes on added importance this time around because of John McCain's age and Barack Obama's relative lack of experience.

Low Expectations, Critical Role For Palin In Debate

Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin speaks during a rally Monday at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin speaks during a rally Monday at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio.

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Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden and his running mate, Barack Obama, disembark from Obama's campaign plane in Detroit on Sunday. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden and his running mate, Barack Obama, disembark from Obama's campaign plane in Detroit on Sunday.

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The Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960 helped determine one of the closest elections in history. hide caption

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The debates that year included President Ford, Jimmy Carter, "Fritz" Mondale and Bob Dole. Don't blame us for this button. hide caption

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Of course we meant Roger Staubach, and not Troy Aikman, in last week's trivia question on TOTN! hide caption

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I am one of those who have been saying for the longest time that the importance of running mates in deciding the presidential election is overrated.

The Dan Quayle example is an apt one. Mocked by Lloyd Bentsen during their 1988 debate and humiliated by his own performance from the get-go, Quayle nonetheless saw himself elected that November on a ticket that won 40 out of 50 states.

There is no shortage of other illustrations as to the overhyping of the VP nominee. Democrat Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 brought tears of joy in her history-making candidacy but won only one state that year: Walter Mondale's home of Minnesota. Democrats loved the exuberance of John Edwards in 2004, but the North Carolina senator failed to bring a single Southern state for John Kerry. Do we blame this on Ferraro and Edwards? No, and that's the point. It's always about the top of the ticket.

But this is not your father's presidential campaign, or even your grandfather's. Historical examples are often useful, but not always ... as this question from reader Alun Parsons of Helsinki, Finland, shows:

Several commentators have said that vice presidential debates are not so important. They cite Dan Quayle's performance in 1988 as an example, but I don't think this is a comparable situation. In 1988 George H.W. Bush was running as Ronald Reagan's incumbent VP, and Reagan was exceptionally popular. Now we have a very unpopular president. John McCain wants to be judged not on the current President Bush's record but on his own abilities and judgment. But given McCain's age and the vast difference in experience between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, doesn't this put more importance on the VP pick?

Alun makes an important point. McCain, as we all know, is 72 years old; no one first elected to the presidency has ever been older. He has had bouts with melanoma in the past. Of the last dozen deceased presidents, half (Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, FDR, Kennedy and Johnson) did not reach 72. So whom he selects as his No. 2 matters a great deal. And there are a lot of reasons why Barack Obama's pick for VP is critical as well; his relative lack of experience (three years in the Senate) is just one.

And that's why Thursday's debate between Palin and Biden is so important.

It is, of course, in the Democratic Party's interest to keep the attention on Palin's qualifications and record. But it is a fair request. Once seen as a savior for the Republicans — she gave a quick boost to GOP hopes with a tremendously effective acceptance speech in St. Paul, and her appearances on the campaign trail drew huge crowds — Palin's selection by McCain is now being questioned by members of their own party. Not every Republican feels she came through her interviews with Charlie Gibson on ABC and Katie Couric on CBS with her reputation enhanced. Her "I can see Russia from my house in Alaska" foreign policy has been lampooned more times than can be counted, and the dead-on, viciously effective impersonations of her by Tina Fey are among the most popular YouTube spoofs in recent memory. The ferociousness of the attacks and the disdain for her record have not been inflicted on any running mate since, well, the above-referenced Quayle. And Quayle had served 12 years in Congress by the time he was named to the ticket. You can almost envision Biden saying to Palin on Thursday, "I knew Dan Quayle. I served with Dan Quayle. And you're no Dan Quayle."

But as long as we're envisioning, I envisioned Obama coming away from last week's debate a clear-cut winner over McCain, and that's not how I saw it when it was over. I anticipated a testy and exhausted McCain, having eschewed debate preparations in favor of inserting himself into the bailout brouhaha on Capitol Hill. Yet I thought both men did what they needed to do. McCain's goal was to come off as informed and experienced; Obama's to come off looking presidential with the right temperament. Both succeeded. I didn't see it as a game-changer. In some respects, you could say McCain won, because the expectation game was that Obama was the better debater. But if the debate changed nothing, then Obama won, because he had an advantage going into the debate at Ole Miss, and nothing that happened in Oxford seems to have changed that dynamic.

If Palin has a Quayle-like deer-in-the-headlights moment on Thursday, it could very well decide who wins on Nov. 4. But don't discount the possibility of Biden doing or saying something Bidenesque, a 2008 version of his "clean and articulate" summation of Obama. I still see Rep. Rick Lazio (R) having the temerity to encroach upon Hillary Clinton's space during their 2000 debate for the New York Senate, or Ferraro lecturing Vice President George Bush in 1984 about being condescending. Or, for that matter, Obama's "You're likable enough" comment to Clinton just before this year's New Hampshire primary. It's a different dynamic when a man debates a woman, and you know that Biden's handlers, with history and, supposedly, Valium at their disposal, have drummed that into the senator from Delaware.

Q: On [Friday's] Day to Day program, you mentioned the close polling in the 1980 election and Ronald Reagan's performance in the debate. OK, but then you went off the rails. You are a student of political history? What "landslide" did Reagan get? He received 50.3 percent of the popular vote. John Anderson got approximately 3 percent, leaving 46 percent plus for President Carter. It was a slim margin, not a landslide. Don't take my word for it; check the numbers yourself. Until you do check, please don't repeat this myth. -- Mark Sherwood, Parkville, Mo.

A: OK, I won't take your word for it. I'll check the numbers myself.

It was a landslide.

Reagan got 50.7 percent, not 50.3. Anderson got 6.6 percent, not 3. Approximately 1.7 percent went to other candidates. Carter got 41 percent, not 46 plus. Reagan beat Carter by 8 1/2 million votes. I would not call that, as you did, a "slim margin." Compared with so many elections, that was, if not a landslide, a smashing victory, especially given that the race was almost even heading into the Oct. 28 debate.

Q: Is it true that in one of the presidential debates in 1976, the audio went out for an extended period of time? How did that happen? Also, why were debates not held in 1964, 1968 and 1972? I can only assume that Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon didn't want to debate their opponents. -- James Crabtree, Pflugerville, Texas

A: During the first Ford-Carter debate in '76, in Philadelphia — a debate where neither candidate could claim a clear victory — the sound went dead as Carter was in the middle of an answer about trust in government and just before the candidates were about to begin their closing remarks. The malfunction of a cheap piece of audio equipment led to 27 minutes of nothing but awkward silence. Reporters in the hall said Ford and Carter just stood around, like statues, not sure of what to do, with neither willing to sit down. When the problem was fixed, the candidates acted as if nothing had happened.

In short, because President Johnson said he didn't want to debate his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, in 1964, it gave Richard Nixon the excuse not to debate his opponents in '68 or '72. Both cited a section of the Communications Act that called for all candidates (third party, independent, etc.) to be included in a debate. It was a clause that was waived in 1960, but only for 1960. In actuality, LBJ was not a great speaker and, with a huge lead over Goldwater, he felt there was no reason to debate. That was good enough for Nixon, who was stung by reviews of his debates in '60 and had no desire for a repeat performance.

The FCC exempted presidential debates from the "equal access" requirement to include all candidates, which led to the 1976 encounters.

Q: For a proper analysis of the 1960 debates, you should point out the anomaly that showed Kennedy perceived as the winner by those who watched it on TV, while the opposite was true [for those] who listened on the radio. Yep, Tricky Dick came off better when he was unseen, as people would not notice a sweaty upper lip on the radio. -- Tim Riley, Panorama City, Calif.

A: That is the widely accepted perception, but it may be more lore than anything else. Alan Schroeder, in his excellent Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV (Columbia University Press, 2000), writes that Atlanta Constitution publisher Ralph McGill arranged for a "number of persons" to listen to the first Kennedy-Nixon debate on radio and found that they had unanimously thought Nixon performed better. "Despite later, more scientific data to the contrary," writes Schroeder, "this early finding took root as a shibboleth."

Q: Why won't they let Ralph Nader in the debates? And why do the media, including NPR, act as if it's only a two-party election? -- Nancy Banks. Similarly, Jordan Jancz of Bridgeport, Conn., and David Lindquist of Overland Park, Kan.

A: According to the Commission on Presidential Debates, to be included in the debates a candidate needs to be — in addition to the constitutional requirements of at least 35 years of age and a natural-born citizen — on enough ballots to have a "mathematical chance of securing an Electoral College majority." Nader, an independent, qualifies for that, as do the Libertarians' Bob Barr and the Greens' Cynthia McKinney.

But here's where it gets tricky. The CPD also states that candidates need to have support of at least 15 percent of the national electorate "as determined by five selected national opinion polling organizations." The commission has the option of including candidates later (say, for the second or third debates) if their polling numbers change.

Critics of this criterion point out that heading up the commission are two former heads of the Democratic and Republican national committees, Paul Kirk and Frank Fahrenkopf, respectively. And so it is in their interest, they charge, that only the two major parties are included. And unless you have a hundred gazillion dollars at your disposal, as was the case with Ross Perot in '92, it's hard to get the attention of the media, which in turn could enable enough voters to hear other candidates' cases and give them sufficient support in the polls.

NPR has not decided that only two candidates are running for president. Both Nader and Barr have been on our programs, including the Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation. (McKinney was invited to this week's program several times but has not gotten back to us.)

But do we give the same coverage to Nader (who received 240,000 votes in 2004 running as an independent, out of 122 million cast), Barr and McKinney as we do the major party nominees? We don't, and we don't claim that we do. There is no major news organization on the planet that would cover a minor party or independent candidate who is polling in the single digits. There are those (and I've heard from them) who insist there is no difference between Obama and McCain, between Democrats and Republicans, and I understand that. There are many more who claim that many of these indies/third-party folks are saying things that the mainstream candidates are not. That is inarguably true. But with fewer and fewer dollars at our disposal, we have to make editorial decisions about which candidates to cover. And either Barack Obama or John McCain will be the next president of the United States.

ROUGHING THE PASSER: My goodness, did I goof in my trivia question answer last week on Talk of the Nation. The subject, of course, was the debates, and I asked a question about the time when a former Dallas quarterback-turned-commentator mocked Jimmy Carter during a 1980 Cowboys-Cardinals game by referring to his own daughter, Amy, and a conversation about the bomb (in this case, a long pass). Lots of people wrote in disbelief after I said the color commentator was Troy Aikman, when of course it was Roger Staubach. I have no idea what led me to say it was Aikman. Loss of down for Rudin.

MEET THE CHALLENGERS: Back in 2006, we initiated this feature, in which we asked you to send in campaign buttons for candidates for the Senate, House and governor. Our end of the bargain — aside from satisfying Ken Rudin's button craze, which is bordering on the unhealthy — would be to feature the candidates in a "meet the challenger" section.

Four candidates this week: two Republicans — Mike Hargadon (Maryland's 7th Congressional District) and John Faulk (Texas' 18th CD), and two Democrats — Craig Weber (North Carolina's 3rd CD) and Don Cooney (Michigan's 6th CD).

Meet the Challengers buttons

Hargadon is taking on Rep. Elijah Cummings (D), who ran unopposed in 2006, winning a sixth full term. A longtime dentist, Hargadon is hoping to drill into voters' heads that the most important issue facing the district, whose center is in downtown Baltimore, is that "our civil liberties are being taken from us by our federal government," which has "become subservient to one-world trade dealers." His solution to illegal immigration is to "physically secure our borders," with "no amnesty, no welfare, no benefits for illegal immigrants." He calls for a constitutional amendment to "end birthright citizenship." Without mentioning Iraq specifically, he says it is "unconstitutional" for the U.S. to continue to "fight wars all over the globe" without congressional approval and says flatly, "Bring our troops home!" On another issue, with which he identifies with Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), he cites the Fourth Amendment in opposing the federal government's use of wiretaps and search warrants.

Faulk similarly has his hands full in challenging Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D), whose district in downtown Houston is overwhelmingly black and Hispanic — and solidly Democratic. Faulk may not harbor visions of winning, but he says frankly, "I started asking around about who was going to straighten out the mess in Washington, D.C. I discovered that no one was willing to take on Sheila Jackson-Lee, so if no one else would stand up for my country, then I would!" He says he is a candidate of "strong morals, traditional values and the wisdom that you would expect and want from your congressman," whereas Jackson-Lee "has proven to be an ineffective leader ... more concerned with world affairs than serving" the voters back home. Marriage, he says, should be defined solely as the union between a man and a woman. He also plans to introduce a "Federal Right to Life Act," which he says would "define 'personhood' as the moment of conception" without needing to alter the Constitution.

Weber says his opponent, Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (R), lacks the integrity to serve in Congress, claiming the seven-term Republican "turned his back on the military" when he called for a withdrawal from Iraq after he "helped send our troops into harm's way and helped sustain this illegal action" in the first place. (Jones did vote for the Iraq war resolution but broke with the White House in 2005, becoming one of the most fervent of anti-war House Republicans.) Weber also says Jones' decision to stand on the floor and say "that someone should apologize to Saddam Hussein for removing him from office" amounted to "disrespecting every veteran and family who ever wore the uniform." He says he "does not have a problem with firearms," but, "If you want me to believe that you want to be able to park an M-1 tank in your driveway or carry a howitzer wherever you go; then I am 'not' your man." Weber, who served in the Marines and was a TV meteorologist (and helped found the Weather Channel), also challenged Jones in 2006, getting 31 percent of the vote.

Cooney, a longtime community organizer who participated in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam movements, is currently a Kalamazoo city commissioner and professor at Western Michigan University. He is spending much of his campaign trying to tie Rep. Fred Upton (R), who is seeking his 12th term, to President Bush's policies. Michigan has the nation's highest unemployment rate, Cooney says, and Upton "has done nothing to alleviate" the situation "and must be held accountable for this failure." If elected, he says he will "support an end to the $12 billion a month we spend in Iraq, tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans, and reinvest those dollars in the human and physical infrastructure of the country." On Iraq, Cooney says Upton "publicly cheerleads" the war effort. He calls the war "illegal, immoral and unnecessary" and wants to see a timetable for withdrawal "as soon as possible."

Want to see your candidate's campaign button appear in the next column and, at the same time, make Ken Rudin happy? Send your 2008 buttons to Political Junkie, 635 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20001.


Oct. 2 — Vice presidential debate, Washington University in St. Louis

Oct. 4 — Louisiana primary

Oct. 7 — Second presidential debate, Belmont University, Nashville, Tenn.

Oct. 15 — Third presidential debate, Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y.


POLITICAL JUNKIE EVERY WEDNESDAY AT THE NEWSEUM: This week, another attempt at interesting conversation, useless trivia questions and sparkling jokes, when the Political Junkie segment appears on Talk of the Nation (NPR's call-in program), as it does every Wednesday at 2 p.m. before a live audience at the Newseum, Washington's interactive museum dedicated to journalism. The Newseum is located at 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., off Sixth Street.

Want to be part of that audience? The tickets are free. And you get to see what Ken Rudin looks like in person, a worrisome proposition in any case. Send an e-mail request to tickets@npr.org. (NOTE: The Oct. 8 edition of Junkie on TOTN will take place in Columbus, Ohio.)

Remember, if your local NPR station doesn't carry TOTN, you can hear the program on the Web or on HD radio. And if you are a subscriber to Sirius radio, you can find the show there as well (siriusly).

IT'S ALL POLITICS: Another brilliant podcast last week (this time we really mean it!), thanks mostly to the ingenuity of producer Thomas Pierce. Check out our weekly podcast every Thursday here.

And here's another positive review, this one from, um, a blog called The Dour Salmon. The blogger calls the podcast one "that I really, really enjoy. It's in-depth, and filled with Ken Rudin's incredibly painful sense of humor. Oh, what fun." Hmm, I think that's a positive review.

******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please don't forget to include your city and state. *********

This day in political history: James Meredith became the first black student admitted to the University of Mississippi, accompanied by 16,000 federal troops sent to Oxford (Oct. 1, 1962).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org.