Biden vs. Palin: Who Won?

One gambled on the firepower of folksy sound bites.

By Steve Burgess 3 Oct 2008 |

Steve Burgess writes about culture -- high, low and political -- for The Tyee.

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Can I call you foe?

"Hey, can I call you Joe?"

That was Sarah Palin's opening remark to Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden at Thursday night's debate in St. Louis. Let the folksiness begin.

But the real first shot of the U.S. vice-presidential debate was fired Wednesday by Fox News and Matt Drudge. The Republican house network and the online mudskipper set the tone by questioning the impartiality of the debate's moderator, PBS host Gwen Ifill. For the Republicans, it had to be done. Their vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin's first line of defense is always to criticize the media, but doing so during the debate would have been awkward to say the least. So Fox and Drudge did the preliminary spadework. Game on.


Never in U.S. political history has there been so much anticipation for a second-banana skirmish. People who would ordinarily choose a Two-and-a-Half Men marathon before considering a political debate were popping popcorn and pulling up chairs to watch Senator Joe Biden take on Alaska Governor Tina Fey. This would be better than a scheduled car wreck. What would Palin do -- weep? Soil herself? Play the flute?

Therein lay the trap for the Democratic veep candidate. Biden would be like Tiger Woods playing a golfer with a three-digit handicap. If Palin simply wore her glasses right side up and refrained from hallucinating the looming head of Vladimir Putin, the debate could be framed as a Republican triumph.

Class war, the folksy version

It was quickly evident that Palin's handlers had coached her well. By 6: 10 p.m. Palin had already referenced: parents at a kid's soccer game, "Joe Six-Pack," and hockey moms. No one was going to out-folksy the governor. Palin actually used the phrase "bless their hearts" when referring to Exxon Mobile and the major oil companies, a combination of words never before heard in human history. About 70 minutes in, Palin went into folksy overdrive, as if desperate to spit out all her stored-up catch-phrases at once. They tumbled out in rapid succession: "Ah, say it ain't so Joe, there you go again;" "Now doggone it…" "A shout out to all those third graders at Gladys Wood Elementary School, you get extra credit for watching this debate;" and in reference to Biden's teacher wife, "God bless her, her reward is in heaven, right?" (thereby putting Mrs. Biden on a par with Exxon Mobile in the eyes of God and Governor Palin).

Other Palinisms: "East coast politicians;" "It's so obvious that I'm a Washington outsider," "We need a little bit of reality from Wasilla main street." She probably had them written on her wrist.

Don't cross me

Biden threw in a quick reference to the "bridge to nowhere," which was telling. That Alaskan boondoggle was originally supposed to be one of Palin's strong suits until it emerged that she had actually supported the bridge initially, and kept the federal money allocated for it. But Biden had obviously been instructed not to go after Palin. He missed some juicy opportunities. Talking about a Senate war resolution, Palin said to Biden: "You're one of those people who were for it before you were against it."

Kind of like the bridge to nowhere, hmm, Governor? But Biden let that fat pitch go by. He also refused to correct Palin when she repeatedly misstated the name of Gen. David McKiernan.

Biden entered the debate lugging his own reputation as the dotty old uncle who has a tendency to say the wrong thing at a dinner party. He, too, was sticking close to the coaching notes, although he appeared to genuinely choke up when talking about his son, currently serving in Iraq.

The candidates sparred on key issues:

"I don't wanna argue about the causes," Palin said about global warming.

"The cause is man-made," said Biden, picking an impolite argument.

"The chant is 'Drill, baby, drill,'" Palin enthused.

"We will end this war," Biden declared.

"Your plan is a white flag of surrender," said Palin.

And the winner is...

Gaffes? When discussing benefits for same sex couples, Biden referred to supporting couples in a "same sex marriage," which may have been inadvertent. Moments later he said he did not support same-sex marriage.

For her part Palin once asked rhetorically: "How long have I been at this? Five weeks?" Her point being that she hadn't had time to make any promises, but it sounded like something Biden should have said.

Biden hit McCain hard and repeatedly. If the outcome of the debate hinged on Biden's performance, he would be considered the clear winner. But this debate was about Governor Palin's performance. The expectation bar was low. She cleared it.

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