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Television Review

Rivals shine, Palin a bit more brightly

Don Emmert/Getty Images/PoolDespite the controversy about her upcoming book on Senator Barack Obama, Gwen Ifill as moderator seemed equally deferential to both vice presidential candidates. Don Emmert/Getty Images/PoolDespite the controversy about her upcoming book on Senator Barack Obama, Gwen Ifill as moderator seemed equally deferential to both vice presidential candidates. (Don Emmert/Getty Images/Pool)
By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / October 3, 2008
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Of all of the things the public had gleefully expected from last night's vice presidential debate, substance was probably far down the list.

But in an evening nearly free of gaffes, large or small, the biggest surprise was how much information Joe Biden and Sarah Palin managed to pack into an hour and a half. This debate was swimming in details - almost drowning in them at times, given how many related to specific bills, votes, and campaign comments, all seemingly culled from lists of partisan talking points. But the night also touched, at breakneck speed, on subjects like gay rights and theories of diplomacy. It even produced some genuine moments of agreement.

Thanks to the presence of Palin, the matchup was colloquial, too, almost casual at times. When she first stepped onstage and shook Biden's hand, she could be overheard saying: "Nice to meet you. Hey, can I call you Joe?"

Especially when talking about domestic policy, she peppered her remarks with phrases like "Darn right." She declared that "Joe Sixpack, hockey moms across the nation, I think we need to band together." She gave a shout-out to third-graders at an Alaska elementary school. At least twice, she winked.

Most strikingly, she seemed to be having a good time - a stark contrast to her recent, damaging interviews with ABC's Charlie Gibson and CBS's Katie Couric, when she came across as stiff, stilted, and fearful, wedded to canned lines and prone to awkward pauses.

The format and pace of last night's debate played to a skill Palin could capitalize on: She studiously avoided answering questions directly, changing the subject with ease. Asked about housing at one point, she gave a confident answer about energy independence.

And unlike Couric, who doggedly pressed at questions Palin had evaded, moderator Gwen Ifill let most of the meandering go. (The effects of the controversy over Ifill's upcoming book, called "The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama," were hard to determine. Was she easy on Palin? Hard on Biden? She seemed equally deferential to both.)

Palin seemed almost gleeful about this new format, which gave her ample chances to talk directly to the camera. "I like being able to answer these tough questions without the filter even of the mainstream media," she said at one point. That would have made more sense had more questions been tough.

But Palin's strategy had changed, as well: Here, she didn't try to cover up her weaknesses. When Ifill pressed her to name a campaign promise she wouldn't be able to keep, she cheerily answered: "How long have I been at this, five weeks? So there hasn't been a whole lot that I've promised."

Biden, whom some expected to be smug or condescending, also comported himself well. His weakest moments came when he tried to match Palin's colloquialisms, tossing out lines like," As my mother would say, God love him but he's been dead wrong." He frequently referred to "my neighborhood," citing hardscrabble towns where he hasn't lived in awhile.

His strength was to have a mountain of details at his disposal, plus a ready answer for every attack Palin put forth; he clarified the record on a litany of Obama votes and hammered at the connection between Bush and McCain.

And at one point, he made good use of his tragic biography, noting with emotion that he knew how it felt to be a single father. It was the moment when he looked the least senatorial, and it worked to his favor.

With so few mistakes, a clear winner was hard to determine. On CNN, a real-time measure of reactions from a group of Ohio voters - which took up nearly a fifth of the screen - rarely dipped into the negative, no matter who was talking.

But throughout it all, Palin was the one who smiled most broadly. Even the flag pin on her lapel had sparkles.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a television review published yesterday on Page A11 implied that vice presidential candidate Joe Biden improperly used the term "Bosniaks." In fact, the term is correct; it refers to Bosnian Muslims.

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