Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska and Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware politely sparred last night over the economy, Iraq and social issues in a vice presidential debate in which both claimed they were agents of change for a nation in financial crisis.
Palin, who displayed more confidence and fluency than in recent television interviews, largely refrained from the cutting comments she has made in some of her speeches. From the beginning, the debate was marked by an air of cordiality, when Palin, who was meeting Biden for the first time, asked, "Hey, can I call you Joe?" and Biden amiably replied that she could.
That folksy manner accompanied the populist tone that Palin deployed throughout the debate, even as she discussed such complex issues as the subprime mortgage crisis.
"Darn right it was the predator lenders," Palin said in response to a question from the debate's moderator, Gwen Ifill of PBS, about whether such lenders were to blame for the economic crisis. They were lenders, Palin said, "who tried to talk Americans into thinking that it was smart to buy a $300,000 house if we could only afford a $100,000 house."
She added, "One thing that Americans do at this time also, though, is let's commit ourselves, just everyday American people - Joe Six-Pack, hockey moms across the nation - I think we need to band together and say, never again."
Biden often chose not to engage Palin directly, instead turning his fire on Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, whom he sought to portray as erratic in his response to the economic crisis and isolated from the concerns of most Americans.
"Well, you know, until two weeks ago - it was two Mondays ago - John McCain said at 9 in the morning that the fundamentals of the economy were strong," Biden said.
"Two weeks before that, he said we've made great economic progress under George Bush's policies. Nine o'clock, the economy was strong; 11 that same day, two Mondays ago, John McCain said that we have an economic crisis. That doesn't make John McCain a bad guy, but it does point out he's out of touch."
The event was Palin's debut in a debate of candidates for national office - in contrast, Biden had participated in 14 before he dropped out of the presidential race on Jan. 3 - and was watched by many millions of Americans eager to see how the self-described "hockey mom" with scant national experience would fare against Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a voluble, gaffe-prone 35-year veteran of Washington.
For many viewers, the debate had a certain Indianapolis 500 quality in the sense that at any moment there could be a conflagration.
The event was held in the Field House at Washington University in St. Louis, the host of presidential debates in 1992, 2000 and 2004 and site of bellwether state that has voted for the winner in every presidential election of the last 48 years.
Facing low expectation because of her stumbling performance in recent television interviews, Palin instead went toe-to-toe with Biden at many points during the debate, not skipping a beat as she recited facts and figures to make her points.
"How long have I been at this, like five weeks?" she said in discussing the economic crisis. "So there hasn't been a whole lot I have promised, except to do what is right for the American people, put government back on the side of the American people, stop the greed and corruption on Wall Street, and the rescue plan has got to include that massive oversight that Americans are expecting and deserving. I don't think that John McCain has made any promise that he would not be able to keep, either."
Palin returned again and again to energy policy, which she clearly feels is her strongest suit, and faulted "East Coast politicians" for failing to allow more oil drilling in Alaska. She did not mention her differences with McCain on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, which she supports but her running mate opposes.
"Barack Obama and Senator Biden, you've said 'no' to everything in trying to find a domestic solution to the energy crisis that we're in," Palin said. "You even called drilling - safe, environmentally friendly drilling offshore - as raping the outer continental shelf. There - with new technology, with tiny footprints even on land, it is safe to drill, and we need to do more of that."
When Palin, who has expressed doubts in the past the global warming is caused by man, was asked what she thinks about climate change, she continued to express doubts.
"I'm not one to attribute every activity of man to the changes in the climate," she said. "There is something to be said, also, for man's activities, but also for the cyclical temperature changes on our planet. But there are real changes going on in our climate, and I don't want to argue about the causes."
She went on to say that she preferred to focus on what should be done.
Biden was more direct about what he thinks the causes are. "I think it is man-made," he said. "I think it's clearly man-made."
"If you don't understand what the cause is," he said, "it's virtually impossible to come up with a solution."
Then the conversation turned to Iraq, where the sons of both Palin and Biden are serving this year.
"It would be a travesty now if we quit now in Iraq," Palin said, charging that Obama's plan to withdraw troops is "a white flag of surrender."
Biden countered that "with all due respect I didn't hear a plan." And he noted that both the Bush administration and the Iraqi government have moved toward embracing Obama's 16-month timeline for withdrawal from Iraq.
"The only odd man out here, the only one left out, is John McCain," he said.
He called the war a fundamental difference between the two tickets. "We will end this war," Biden said.
"John continues to tell us that the central war on terror is in Iraq," Biden said. "I promise you if an attack comes on the homeland, it's going to come as our security services have said. It's going to come from al-Qaida planning in the hills of Afghanistan and Pakistan. That's where they live, that's where they are, that's where it will come from."
The vice presidential debate was a highly anticipated prize fight of politics because of Palin's wobbly performance in a series of recent interviews, most notably with Katie Couric, the anchor of the CBS Evening News. Palin gave a rambling and at times incoherent response when asked why Alaska's proximity to Russia enhanced her foreign-policy credentials, as she had suggested in an earlier interview with Charles Gibson of ABC News. Palin also drew a blank when Couric asked her which Supreme Court decisions she disagreed with beyond Roe v. Wade.
The debate came at a difficult juncture for the McCain campaign as an array of polls nationally and in swing states showed that Obama had gained significant momentum in the race.
Polls also show that a majority of voters believe that Palin is not experienced enough to be president if McCain, 72, reaches the White House but cannot serve out his term.
Biden went into the debate with disadvantages of his own, particularly his propensity for windiness and history of gaffes.