The Showdown in the Show Me state showed that Sarah Palin may be ready for prime time after all.
The vice presidential candidates, Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Palin, debated for 90 minutes at Washington University in St. Louis.
"Nice to meet you," Palin greeted Biden, because indeed they hadn't met before.
Asked about Congress's work on the Wall Street bailout package, Biden said it was evidence of eight years of failed policies.
Biden pledged to "fundamentally" change policies to focus on the middle class.
Palin answered that a barometer is to go to a kids' soccer game, and said "I betcha" that you'll hear fear.
She said that federal government not provided "sound oversight," and said running mate John McCain had sounded the warning bell on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and said McCain had put politics aside by suspending his campaign to return to Washington to work on the bailout.
Biden responded by saying that McCain said two weeks ago that the fundamentals of the economy were strong. "He's out of touch," the senator said.
"He was talking to and talking about the American workforce," she retorted.
Asked if predatory lenders were to blame for the subprime mortgage crisis, Palin answered, "Darn right, it was the predatory lenders."
"Joe six-packs" and "hockey moms" need to band together and say, "Never again," she said, filling her answers with everyday conversational language.
Biden blamed McCain and other Republicans for deregulation that allowed subprime lenders to run free.
Biden also disputed Palin saying that Barack Obama had voted to raise taxes, asserting that it was a procedural vote and by that measure McCain had voted to raise taxes much more often.
"It's a bogus standard," Biden said.
Palin went after Biden for saying in a television interview last month that it would be "patriotic" if wealthier Americans paid higher taxes, as under Obama's plan under which those making $250,000 or more a year would lose their income tax cuts passed under President Bush.
Palin said that she comes from the middle class, and there "That's not patriotic. Patriotic is saying, 'Government you're not always the solution, often you're the problem."
Biden replied that he grew up in the middle class as well, and that McCain would give more tax breaks to big oil companies.
Palin, repeatedly looking down and apparently checking her notes, accused Obama of supporting tax breaks for Big Oil that she tried to undo as Alaska's governor.
Biden said Obama voted for the bill because it included alternative energy, and tried to strip out the tax breaks.
Palin defended McCain's vote for a bankruptcy bill that made it more difficult for consumers to get out from under debt, but acknowledged that circumstances are changing.
Biden also voted for the bill, while Obama opposed it. "Barack saw the glass as half empty, I saw it as half full," he said.
Asked about her position on global warming, Palin said Alaska is feeling the effects more than any other state because it is closest to the Arctic.
"We know it's real," though she said she would not attribute all of climate change to man's activities.
She promoted McCain's "all of the above" plan for energy independence that includes wind, solar, nuclear, and offshore oil drilling.
Biden said global warming is "clearly man-made," asserting that if you don't understand the causes, you can't come up with a solution. He derided McCain's call for offshore drilling, saying the first drop wouldn't be produced for 10 years.
Biden said he supported equal rights for same-sex couples when it comes to hospital visitation, contracts, property, and other issues, but does not support gay marriage.
Palin said she opposed moves toward a change in the traditional definition of marriage, but said she is tolerant of people who choose to be homosexual.
On the Iraq war, Palin said McCain has the right strategy, put in place by General David Petraeus. "We're getting closer and closer to victory," she said.
Biden said Obama has a clear plan -- to withdraw troops within 16 months of taking office -- that President Bush and Iraq leaders are now negotiating. "We will end this war," Biden said. "John McCain has no end in sight."
"Your plan is a white flag of surrender," Palin replied.
They also sparred over whether Obama had voted not to fund the troops; Biden said McCain had done the same thing by voting against a funding bill that included a timetable for withdrawal.
Biden disputed McCain's assertion that Iraq is the central front on the war on terror, arguing that any attack on the United States would be planned in the badlands of Pakistan.
Palin asserted that Petraeus and leaders of al Qaeda in Iraq had said that of Iraq.
She tried to turn the tables, calling Obama not only naive but dangerous for agreeing to meet without preconditions with dictators who hate America.
"This is simply not true," Biden replied, saying that former secretaries of state and allies are urging US leaders to negotiate.
He then criticized McCain for saying he would not promise to meet as president with leader of Spain, a NATO ally. "I find that incredible," Biden said.
Palin broadened her critique of Obama and Biden, saying that voters will tire of them constantly criticizing the Bush administration's eight years.
"There's just too much finger pointing backwards," she said.
She acknowledged "huge blunders" by the Bush administration, like every administration, but vowed, "Change is coming."
Palin said McCain will learn from the mistakes, put aside partisanship, and move the country forward.
But Biden said the comparison to Bush is entirely fair because McCain has not proposed any different policies on a wide range of issues.
"Past is prologue," he said.
Palin accused Biden of supporting the Iraq war and McCain's strategies -- until he was picked by Obama as his running mate.
She called herself a Washington outsider perplexed by politicians being for things before they are against it. "Americans are craving that straight talk," she said.
Biden denied the assertion: "I never supported John McCain's strategy on the war."
Asked if a Biden presidency would differ from an Obama if he succeeded him, Biden would not acknowledge any major differences.
"I would carry out Barack Obama's policies," he said, listing his priorities on domestic and foreign policy. "I agree with every major initiative he has suggested."
Palin said she would continue McCain's work on fighting corruption, but named drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as one.
"A team of mavericks, we're not going to agree on everything," she said.
Palin appeared to gain confidence during the debate as she avoided any major flubs or gaffes, becoming more conversational.
When Biden again criticized the Bush administration for not helping the middle class, she shot back: "Say it ain't so Joe, there you go again pointing backwards," Palin said.
Asked about their roles as vice president, Palin said she hopes to advocate for families of special needs children.
Biden said he would be the point person in the Congress to get Obama's legislation through and to give his best advice.
Palin repeatedly mentioned her own family and middle-class upbringing and life, trying to reach out to the vast majority of voters.
Biden talked about his own childhood and his life as a single parent after his first wife was killed in a car wreck.
Palin also repeatedly talked up McCain as a maverick.
"Change is coming and John McCain is the leader of that reform," she said.
Near the end of the debate, Biden forcefully challenged McCain's reputation, saying he had not helped the middle class and marched in lockstep with President Bush. "Maverick he is not," he said.
The bottom-line challenges the candidates faced:
For Palin, can she give specific answers and reassure voters whose misgivings have been growing, ever since her GOP convention speech, after one flub after another in unscripted interviews and appearances?
For Biden, can he avoid a gaffe that would be endlessly replayed and that would undercut his claim to steady experience?
Their political personas couldn't be more different.
Palin, 44, has been governor of Alaska for less than two years, and before that was mayor of the small town of Wasilla and a self-described "hockey mom."
Biden, 65, has been in the US Senate since 1972, has run for president twice, and has been a fixture on national TV as a committee chairman.
It is the most-anticipated vice presidential debate in years, with some predicting a record audience. Of course, the same predictions were made about the first presidential debate last Friday, and it ended up not even cracking the top 10, though typical light TV viewership on Friday nights likely kept the numbers down.
The most-watched veep face-off so far was George H.W. Bush vs. Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 with 56.7 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. The 2004 version between Dick Cheney and John Edwards drew an audience of 43.6 million.
The candidates at the top of the ticket are both watching the debate from afar, Obama in a hotel in Lansing, Mich., and McCain at one in Denver.
Less than an hour before start time, Obama called Biden to wish him luck.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.