Republicans gave thanks yesterday that their presidential running mate, Sarah Palin, had come out of Thursday night's debate with Joe Biden in St Louis at least partially rehabilitated, even as the focus in the race for the White House was jolting back to the unfriendly territory of job losses and the economy.
If Ms Palin had any advantage going into the night it was the sub-basement expectations surrounding her. In the end, she spared the campaign excruciating embarrassment by remaining mostly coherent and delivering an aggressive, folksy performance that played up her Middle America appeal and plugged her status as a Washington outsider ready to challenge the status quo.
However Joe Biden, who has his own history of gaffe-making and loquaciousness, also kept a firm footing. Surveys of undecided voters gave the debate to the Democrat. A CBS poll showed 46 per cent of wavering voters favouring Mr Biden, 21 per cent Mrs Palin.
The 44-year-old Governor of Alaska unabashedly ducked questions, preferring instead to hammer away with slogans on themes that suited her like energy policy. "I may not answer the questions that the moderator or you want to hear," she warned, "but I'm going to talk straight to the American people."
Twice she mispronounced the name of America's commander in Afghanistan, David McKiernan, calling him McClellan, and got into a brief but fearsome tangle discussing nuclear arms and Iran. "Nuclear weaponry, of course, would be the be-all, end-all of just too many people in too many parts of our planet, so those dangerous regimes, again, cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, period," she said.
But the Governor may have avoided giving new fodder to impersonator Tina Fey and the late night comedians. "A lot of Republicans have to feel relieved," Charlie Cook of the non-partisan Cook Report concluded. "This debate is the only good thing to happen to Republicans all week."
"We've said all along that she's a very talented politician; she proved that again tonight," Barack Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, told reporters after the debate was over. "But she's selling a failed product." Bill Richardson, the Democratic Governor of New Mexico said the Governor was "animated and positive" but had been unable to "articulate anything beyond her talking points".
Repeatedly winking to the camera and deploying catchphrases like "doggone it" and "dontcha", Mrs Palin nonetheless showed a better grasp of the issues than had seemed the case in interviews. The candidates tangled over approaches to keeping Iran non-nuclear, healthcare, global warming, and gay marriage.
Most of the verbal torpedoes were aimed less at each other than the top of each other's tickets. Ms Palin said Barack Obama had voted against funding the troops in Iraq and added that Mr Biden had criticised him for it. Mr Biden countered that Mr McCain had been "dead wrong on the fundamental issues relating to the conduct of the war".
Ms Palin said setting a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq amounted to "waving the white flag of surrender". The Iraq exchanges had an unusual poignancy – Ms Palin's oldest son, Track, was recently deployed to the war and Mr Biden rushed home to Delaware after the debate to bid farewell to his son, Beau, who left for Iraq yesterday.
The Palin pitch of down-home values – "I think we need a little reality from Wasilla Main Street brought to Washington", she said, alluding to the Alaska town where she was mayor – was countered by Mr Biden, who told viewers how his first wife and their daughter had died in a car crash in 1972, leaving him to raise their two badly-injured sons.
Appearing to choke up, the Senator said: "I understand what it's like to be a single parent. When my wife and daughter died and my two sons were gravely injured, I understand what it's like to wonder if your kid's going to make it."
Senator Biden questioned the branding of Mr McCain as a "maverick" and sought to undermine the claim that McCain-Palin could changeWashington: "The issue is, how different is John McCain's policy going to be than George Bush's? I haven't heard anything yet."
Voters' thoughts: The Independent's focus group
What she said...
*On first stepping on the stage in St Louis she greeted her opponent with: "Nice to meet ya... Can I call you Joe?"
*When Biden attacked John McCain's record she shot back: "Say it ain't so, Joe, there you go again pointing backward. Now, doggone it, let's look ahead and tell Americans what we have to plan to do for them in the future."
*Giving a "shout-out" to the students of her brother, a primary school teacher. "You get extra credits for watching this debate."
*On taxes: "Darn right we need tax relief."
And what they said...
"She killed. She was the star. Sarah Palin saved John McCain again. She is the political equivalent of cardiac paddles: Clear! Zap! We've got a beat! She will re-electrify the base."
Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal
"She's back. Yes, there were weak points in her knowledge. But she also laid good clean hits on Biden. By the end ... she seemed to become more winsome by the minute."
Rich Lowry, New York Post
"Expectations for Palin were so low that the mere fact that she managed to keep talking will be rated as a great victory by McCain. But Biden knew what he was talking about."
EJ Dionne, Washington Post
"Palin didn't need to hit this one out of the park, she just needed to be steady and mistake-free and she largely succeeded. But... Biden walked away with the edge."
Vaughn Ververs, CBS News
"Palin did show that she not only knows how to field-dress a moose, but to stand toe-to-toe with a senator."
Howard Fineman, Newsweek
Sarah Palin may not know a collateral debt obligation from a Salt II treaty, but she is quick and bright.
Joe Biden knows his stuff, but his 30 years of experience seems to hang on him. I call it a draw.
My impression of the debate can be summed up in one word – frustrating. Neither fully answered a single question they were asked. They both stuck to the party lines.
*Mary Beth Ray
Biden excelled on foreign policy, and Palin spoke well on energy issues. I find Palin's style distracts from her substance – those winks, "betchas"and "gonnas" drive me crazy!
*Renee Van Vechten
Big sighs of relief on both sides: Palin staunched the self-induced bleeding, and Biden didn't explode. Though Palin's style resonates with conservative folk who want to hear from people "like them", Biden dominated on issues of substance.