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The Baltimore Sun

Sarah Palin, unfiltered, more than held her own on the national debate stage last night. She was folksy and charming and delivered her lines, even the stock ones, with conviction and brio.

On style and charm and connecting with viewers at home, the newcomer seemed to have it all over Joe Biden, the veteran pol who dared to be boring at the outset and took quite a while to warm up. Palin locked into the camera lens from the start and never let go, wriggling her nose to take the edge off her sharpest lines.

Biden may have had the stronger arguments, in terms of substance and political advantage, at least at this point in the campaign.

Importantly, he avoided the worst mistakes that could have cost him dearly. He wasn't overbearing, arrogant or a wise guy, and he kept his focus on John McCain, not Palin, his embattled rival.

Both candidates summoned up the ghost of Ronald Reagan to make their most effective pitches.

Biden borrowed Reagan's "Are you better off" question, used with devastating impact in the 1980 campaign to oust an unpopular White House incumbent. Biden employed it to carry out the Democrats' main mission - tying economic misery on Main Street to the Republican in the White House and linking it to his own middle-class, Mid-Atlantic roots.

"Ask anybody in there whether or not the economic and foreign policy of this administration has made them better off in the last eight years. And then ask them whether there's a single major initiative that John McCain differs with the president on. On taxes, on Iraq, on Afghanistan, on the whole question of how to help education, on the dealing with health care," he said. "The people in my neighborhood, they get it. They get it. They know they've been getting the short end of the stick. ... The wealthy have done very well. Corporate America has been rewarded. It's time we change it. Barack Obama will change it."

Palin shot right back with a line, clearly scripted in advance for maximum Reaganesque impact, that may have been her best moment of the night.

"Ah, say it ain't so, Joe; there you go again, pointing backwards again," the Alaska governor remarked, managing to merge Ronald Reagan's most famous debate one-liner with the remark that a shoeshine boy supposedly made to Shoeless Joe Jackson during the Black Sox scandal of the early 20th century.

Palin wasn't error-free, and her frequent references to herself and McCain as mavericks probably struck many viewers as repetitive and rehearsed. But if someone blundered into one of those dreaded YouTube moments that will be seen online for days to come, it most likely was the senator.

"We do support making sure that committed couples in a same-sex marriage are guaranteed the same constitutional benefits ... as heterosexual couples," said Biden. He did make it clear, in answer to a follow-up question, that he and Barack Obama don't support gay marriage. Still, his words are out there now for his enemies to post on the Internet, which they surely will.

Palin slipped when she pushed back against Biden over the need for more troops in Afghanistan, calling Army Gen. David McKiernan "McClellan" by mistake.

But Biden, given a chance to follow up, did not call her on it.

Palin did her best to brush aside Biden's efforts to link McCain to Bush, by portraying that as old-style Washington politics.

"Now doggone it, let's look ahead and tell Americans what we have to plan to do for them in the future," said Palin, who studded her answers with down-home phrases like "darn right."

At one point, when asked about what promises she couldn't fulfill because of budget woes, she perkily replied that she hadn't been a candidate long enough for that.

"How long have I been at this, what, five weeks?" she said. And at another juncture she drew audience laughter when she said that students taught by her brother deserved "extra credit" for having to watch the debate.

"Hey, can I call you Joe," she asked Biden, when the two met for the first time, shaking hands at center stage. But she didn't do that, and Biden was careful to call her "Governor."

Was the debate a game changer? Will it shake up the race, in the face of what McCain described yesterday as "the greatest financial crisis of our lifetime."

Probably not.

McCain said they'd "let Palin be Palin," and she was.

He promised that she would do better than she has done in recent weeks once she got to speak directly to voters. Palin herself, in closing remarks, said how glad she had been to get to participate "without the filter of the mainstream media telling people what they've just heard."

Now the race will quickly turn to Tuesday's presidential debate, with the shadow of the financial crisis overhanging everything and making life tough for McCain and Palin.

Americans may still consider Palin unqualified to take over the presidency, as the polls say. But the Alaska governor has shown that when the pressure is on, she can handle it, as she did at the Republican convention four weeks ago and again last night.

It may have been unrealistic to expect Palin to do more than stop the damage to her own image, which she may well have done. It is McCain's job to get his campaign back in groove, starting with the final two debates.

He'll have to do it in the face of economic turmoil that has created the worst environment for Republicans in 35 years, as McCain's political director, Mike DuHaime, described it last night.

The challenge for Biden, by way of contrast, was relatively simple. Do nothing to mess up a contest in which the Democratic ticket currently holds the advangage. On that score, he appears to have succeeded, too.

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