For ninety minutes tonight, Governor Sarah Palin and Senator Joe Biden will square off in the one and only vice-presidential debate of this campaign season. While there's been lots of hangwringing over how Governor Palin will do in the debate, I think the worry is unnecessary. In fact, the debate may actually work in Governor Palin's (and ultimately Senator John McCain's) favor.
Here's how I got there: the debate will allow the voters to see both candidates completely unfiltered. There's no spin, no helpful media covering up one candidate's gaffes, no exploitative media blowing the other candidate's gaffes way out of proportion. People will get to see them both as they really are and be able to make up their minds about which one they like better.
In the end, I don't think that who wins the debate will matter all that much. As Rich Galen points out, Dan Quayle had a horrible debate in 1988 and it didn't stop George H. W. Bush from being elected.
Just as an aside, I think his over-under of three and a half is on the low side.
Back to my original point: voters will get to see the candidates as they really are without the influence of any media spin (positive or negative). That's the real value in having a debate.
Governor Palin, when she is relaxed, comes across as very real. For many voters that's incredibly appealing.
Senator Biden, while being very intelligent and experienced, has one major flaw: he talks too much.
Governor Palin has to have the same kind of performance she did during her acceptance speech at the Republican convention.
Senator Biden has to tread carefully so that he doesn't (a) say something really stupid and ultimately damaging to the campaign and (b) doesn't come across as condescending towards Governor Palin.
On balance, I think Senator Biden is the one who is under more pressure going into this debate.
There's also the issue of moderator Gwen Ifill. I don't watch PBS as a rule so I can't speak with any confidence as to how well she's going to do. The consensus of opinion I have heard is that she will do a fine job.
But I don't think she should have ever accepted the job in the first place. Her book deal has what lawyers like to refer to as the "appearance of impropriety". It's not that you can say with certainty that it's wrong for her to moderate the debate but it certainly looks bad. Her credibility will no doubt be damaged. However, this little controversy is likely to drive up ratings for the debate even further as viewers will be curious to see how she handles the questioning of the two candidates.
Regardless of the actual outcome of the debate, the media will declare Joe Biden the winner as they are making no secret of the fact they are in the tank for Senator Barack Obama. They did their best to declare Senator Obama the winner of the first debate even though it was clear to just about anyone who watched the entire thing that Senator McCain had the better night.
While I don't expect the debate tonight to make that much of a difference in the outcome of the election the two candidates' performance will say something about the men who selected them as their running mates. As it should.