Editorial: What will debate tell?

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 2, 2008

Sara Palin hasn’t just fired up the Republican base. She also has fired up interest in tonight’s vice-presidential debate between Palin and Joe Biden.
Conventional wisdom says that second fiddles don’t jazz up elections that much. But this appears to be a year in which conventional wisdom goes out the window. The vice-presidential debate has already brought a record number of requests for media credentials ó 3,100 ó and tonight’s program at Washington University in St. Louis is likely to produce record-high television ratings for a political debate. That means it would not only surpass the 52 million viewers who tuned in to last week’s debate between the ticket headliners, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, but would also surpass the 60-million-plus Americans who watched the Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960.
With Palin a relatively new face on the national political scene, carrying an intriguing political biography, it’s not surprising that this debate would stir much more interest than the typical vice-presidential face-off. Also helping to hype the event is the fact that Palin has at times appeared to struggle with unscripted answers in recent television interviews. Her Democratic opponent has a well-documented history of verbal misadventures as well.
Given the parties involved, the debate probably has more possibilities for the unpredictable than last week’s presidential forum or, certainly, earlier encounters between John Edwards and Dick Cheney or Joe Lieberman and Cheney. Allowing participants to directly question or engage one another adds yet an element of spontaneity.
Both tickets have a lot riding on the outcome, but given McCain’s recent drop in some polls and persistent questions about Palin’s readiness to be VP, there’s more at stake for her. She will need to prove that she has a mastery of major domestic and foreign policy issues and can think fast on her feet, while Biden will need to rein in his infamous tendency to ramble and avoid getting his toes stuck in his teeth.
Ultimately, the real test for the worthwhileness of this debate isn’t whether the candidates can avoid catastrophic lapses or land rhetorical jabs. It’s whether the debate helps us better gauge their approach to policy issues, their governing style and their character.
Possible gaffes and “gotcha” moments aside, will we learn anything about the candidates that we didn’t already know? Will we hear anything that contradicts what we already thought we knew? Will there be a knockout punch ó or at least a defining moment?
Tune in for the answers.