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Biden, Palin Take Spotlight in Highly Anticipated VP Debate

October 2, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Vice presidential candidates Sen. Joe Biden and Gov. Sarah Palin will face off Thursday in their only debate -- a meeting political-watchers say could earn record levels of viewership. Reporters who have been covering Biden and Palin offer insight.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The past month has been a study in contrasts when it comes to the two vice presidential nominees.

Sarah Palin has campaigned mostly with John McCain, drawn large, enthusiastic crowds, and received considerable attention from the national news media.

However, she has done just three extended television interviews. Most recently, she sat down with “CBS Evening News” anchor Katie Couric and appeared to struggle with some questions, including one about McCain’s record on regulating financial markets.

KATIE COURIC, “CBS Evening News” Host: You’ve said, quote, “John McCain will reform the way Wall Street does business.” Other than supporting stricter regulations of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac two years ago, can you give us any more examples of his leading the charge for more oversight?

GOV. SARAH PALIN (R), Alaska: I think that the example that you just cited, with his warnings two years ago about Fannie and Freddie, that — that’s paramount. That’s more than a heck of a lot of other senators and representatives did for us.

KATIE COURIC: I’m just going to ask you one more time, not to belabor the point. Specific examples in his 26 years of pushing for more regulation?

GOV. SARAH PALIN: I’ll try to find you some, and I’ll bring them to you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Such responses have drawn criticism from political writers and commentators on both the left and the right. And a new poll by ABC News and the Washington Post shows 6 in 10 voters believe Palin lacks the experience to be an effective president.

The few times Biden has been thrust into the spotlight have been for misstatements or gaffes, like this one during his own interview with Couric in September.

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), Delaware: Part of what a leader does is to instill confidence, is demonstrate that he or she knows what they’re talking about and communicates to people, “If you listen to me and follow what I’m suggesting, we can fix this.”

And when the stock market crashed, Franklin Roosevelt got on the television and didn’t just talk about, you know, the princes of greed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Roosevelt was not president when the market collapsed, and television was still years away from becoming a mainstream medium.

For the past week, both Palin and Biden have been preparing for tonight’s debate, Palin at McCain’s home in Arizona, Biden near his home in Delaware.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But in the past day or so, some attention has shifted to the moderator, NewsHour senior correspondent Gwen Ifill. Wednesday morning, blogger Matt Drudge linked to an article on World Net Daily, a conservative news and opinion Web site, which called into question Ifill’s objectivity as moderator, citing the release of her upcoming book on a new generation of African-American political leaders.

The title of the yet-to-be-completed work is, “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.” It includes profiles of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and Alabama Congressman Artur Davis. Some commentators have suggested it’s a conflict of interest, since Ifill stands to gain from book sales.

Yesterday, syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin wrote about Ifill, quote, “She’s so far in the tank for the Democrat presidential candidate, her oxygen delivery line is running out.”

Ifill’s response, quote, “I’ve got a pretty long track record covering politics and news, so I’m not particularly worried that one-day blog chatter is going to destroy my reputation. The proof is in the pudding. They can watch the debate and make their own decisions about whether or not I’ve done my job.”

A number of journalists came to Ifill’s defense today, and so did former McCain aide John Weaver, who was quoted by the New York Times, “Gwen Ifill is as honorable and fair a journalist as there is, and all of us in our business know that.”

McCain himself addressed the issue in an appearance on FOX News this morning, saying, quote, “Frankly, I wish that they had picked a moderator that isn’t writing a book favorable to Barack Obama. But I have to have confidence that Gwen Ifill will treat this as a professional journalist as she is.”

In the end, tonight’s debate will not be about the moderator, but about the two vice presidential candidates facing each other for the only time in this election.

Biden targets working-class voters

Perry Bacon
The Washington Post
[Biden's] to some extent become the sort of ambassador to what you might call Hillary Clinton-land in some ways, the people who sort of didn't vote for Obama in the primary,

JUDY WOODRUFF: For a closer look at the roles that Sarah Palin and Joe Biden have been playing in the presidential campaign, we turn to Washington Post reporter Perry Bacon. He's been covering Biden on the campaign trail. And New York Times reporter Kate Zernike, she's been on the trail with Palin.

So let's talk about these nominees and Joe Biden first. Perry Bacon, to you, how has he been used on the trail?

PERRY BACON, The Washington Post: He's been targeting a lot of states. He's been a lot of times in Ohio and Pennsylvania and Michigan. These are three big swing states.

And he's to some extent become the sort of ambassador to what you might call Hillary Clinton-land in some ways, the people who sort of didn't vote for Obama in the primary, people in sort of rural towns, smaller towns, and sort of working-class voters without college educations often.

Biden spent a lot of time in those groups and talked about his sort of middle-class background, talked about the fact that he's Catholic, and tried to sort of really connect with those audiences, and maybe -- and try to sell Obama and validate him to those audiences, as well as sort of criticize Senator McCain's economic plans for not doing enough for those audiences.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, what states, what communities, and how are these crowds receiving him?

PERRY BACON: It depends on where you are, but, I think, in Pennsylvania, he seems to be much more well-known. Delaware is much closer, of course, to -- Delaware, where he's from -- is much closer to Pennsylvania.

So it seems that people in Pennsylvania seem to know who he is and really like applaud him a lot. When I travel with him in Ohio and Michigan, there's a little less -- when he's talking, there are people at the crowds that are already sort of Obama supporters a lot of times anyway.

But people are less familiar with Biden. They still respond to him well, though, because he has a very fiery message and a strong tone in which he sort of praises Obama and takes on McCain.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So mostly a witness for Senator Obama?

PERRY BACON: He described himself when I talked to him as sort of a validator. He said -- he described -- he said, you know, he and to some extent Bill and Hillary Clinton, as they campaign, are sort of validators for Obama, you know, maybe someone who seems more like you as a validator for Obama, I guess is the way he sort of phrased it.

Palin draws crowds for McCain

Kate Zernike
The New York Times
McCain and Palin have been together largely because she just draws these enormous crowds and that's really boosted his numbers at these big rallies.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kate Zernike, let's talk about Sarah Palin. You've been on the road with her. Where has she been? And we know that she's mostly been with John McCain, is that right?

KATE ZERNIKE, The New York Times: She had been, unlike, as Perry was saying, where Obama and Biden are targeting more of the country and sort of splitting the work, McCain and Palin have been together largely because she just draws these enormous crowds and that's really boosted his numbers at these big rallies.

So in places like Ohio, where they're really fighting hard to win, she's pulled these huge crowds.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how -- what role does she play in these events? I mean, what generally is her message alongside his?

KATE ZERNIKE: She really just backs up what he says, but she manages to play a really effective attack dog, which is, of course, the traditional vice presidential role, but she manages to say it with a smile. She injects a little humor into it. She really raises sort of the energy and the exuberance of the crowd.

I mean, I was at a rally with them in Ohio I guess it was last week or two weeks ago, and people started -- it was almost -- it almost hurt McCain, because people started to stream out of the audience when she was done speaking. A lot of them said, "Well, we really came to see Sarah." They just had this tremendous personal connection with her.

Press access to the candidates

Perry Bacon
The Washington Post
Obama and Biden decided they were going to talk about Palin very little and make sure to focus on McCain as much as possible. So you hear very, very little from Biden about Palin.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why do you think, Kate Zernike, they've decided to restrict the press access to her?

KATE ZERNIKE: Well, I mean, I think probably the evidence is in the interviews that we have seen. She's really stumbled for answers. She's not been able to provide, for instance, with Katie Couric, I believe it was last night, she couldn't provide an answer to Supreme Court decisions that she disagreed with.

I think they're very nervous that she doesn't have a lot of experience on the national stage and they don't know what she's going to say.

And it's not just the press, really. She's not done a lot of fundraisers so far. She did one in Ohio early on and did not take questions from the audience. So they've really tried to just keep her at scripted events where they know they can have a better handle on what she's saying.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Perry Bacon, back to you. What about Biden? How often does he talk to the press?

PERRY BACON: Biden does a lot of interviews. I think his staff, when they've criticized Palin, they've talked about -- I think he's done something on the order of 90 interviews.

He also doesn't do a lot of press conferences with the reporters who follow him around. It seems to be more sort of like interviews on like a network show or on sort of a local television station where he's campaigning.

He's done, I think, something like 90 interviews overall, so he's actually talked a lot.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much is he talking about Governor Palin?

PERRY BACON: Almost never. I mean, he's sort of avoided talking -- very early on, he made a joke about how she was good-looking, in his words, and that appeared in a McCain ad that sort of suggested the Democrats were being demeaning to her.

And pretty much after that, he's said almost nothing about -- it's part of the Obama strategy. It's been Obama and Biden decided they were going to talk about Palin very little and make sure to focus on McCain as much as possible. So you hear very, very little from Biden about Palin.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Kate Zernike, what about Governor Palin? How much is she bringing up Joe Biden? We know -- there was a comment the other day where she said she'd been watching him on television since she was in second grade.

KATE ZERNIKE: Right, right. But that's really the only reference she's made to him and that was sort of to set the expectations high -- you know, they've been trying to set the expectations low for her for tonight so that anything she does is going to appear like a great performance.

They've tried to say that Joe Biden has all this experience debating so, of course, he should win and she's really in an uphill fight here.

She talks about Obama a bit, but more, you know, "our opponent," never by name, and really very little about Biden.

Candidates' preparation for debate

Kate Zernike
The New York Times
[The McCain campaign] did release a photo of [Palin] and a statement saying that they had been doing debate prep in a relaxed setting by the river. It was sort of, you know, you can imagine debate spa instead of debate boot camp.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What has she been doing to prepare? What have they -- how much is known about that?

KATE ZERNIKE: Well, they were out, as you said earlier, they were in Sedona for a large part of this week. The campaign released very little information about it. They wouldn't even say who was playing Biden in the debate prep, in the mock debates.

They did release a photo of her and a statement saying that they had been doing debate prep in a relaxed setting by the river. It was sort of, you know, you can imagine debate spa instead of debate boot camp.

But they really didn't say much about what she was doing, but I'm sure it involved boning up on both foreign policy and the economy, which is where she's really struggled in these interviews.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that's been over the last several days?

KATE ZERNIKE: Yes. Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Perry Bacon, what about Biden? He's been back in Delaware. What has he been doing to prepare?

PERRY BACON: His staff has been sure to sort of look over the tapes. They don't know much about Palin, or they didn't before, so they looked over the tapes of her gubernatorial debates in 2006 and sort of talked to him about that.

Jennifer Granholm, the governor of Michigan, who is also a youngish, you know, female governor, sort of came to Delaware to work with Biden, because they -- the staff doesn't want to overstate that, but they are sort of aware of the gender factor involved here.

And sort of they practice -- so they made sure Biden has talked to some other female senators, including Hillary Clinton, about the debate, as well. And so they're aware of that factor.

But he's made -- you know, he knows his policy views pretty well, I think, so he's mainly been going over -- sort of reviewing those and also thinking about tactics and trying to make sure that he focuses more on McCain and Obama than Palin.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Perry, what are they saying about their expectations, in terms of what are they worried about, what are they confident about?

PERRY BACON: Well, they're trying to play the same game, which is to suggest that Palin is the world's greatest debater, so they're talking about how -- I mean, the thing they seem to be aware of is that she's good at sort of -- you know, Biden said this himself at one point, that Palin is very -- Palin's RNC speech at the convention a few months ago showed she was really good at sort of being punchy and having some tough one-liners.

So they are trying to make sure Biden is prepared for how to deal with it if she comes directly at him, because Biden has sort of admitted himself he's -- he's sort of known for being long-winded, and he sort of acknowledges, if the debate is about who has the best one-liner, he's said, "I'm not going to do very well," so he's -- that's something they're sort of aware of.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Kate Zernike, what are the McCain people saying about their expectations for Governor Palin and what they're worried about, what they're confident about?

KATE ZERNIKE: Well, I think what they're trying to do is set this up as Sarah Palin who has executive experience and as Joe Six-Pack, as she's been describing herself lately, and Joe Biden spent 30 years in the halls of the Senate, sort of -- you know, he's all twisted up in this arcane policy detail, but she's really one of the people, and she's going to appeal to people on that level, and people will see her and make the kind of connection that they've been making at these big rallies.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, well, we are going to leave it there, Kate Zernike with the New York Times, Perry Bacon with the Washington Post, thank you both.

PERRY BACON: Thank you, Judy.