ST. LOUIS – Between Sarah Palin, with her repeated missteps in a series of interviews with CBS anchor Katie Couric over the last week, and gaffe-prone Joe Biden, who also has made for some Maalox moments for Barack Obama’s campaign recently, the two running mates have set the stage for what may be the most anticipated vice presidential debate in history.
With all their potential for pitfalls and insta-classic moments, the pair has made the build up to the showdown, to take place here Thursday night at Washington University, feel more like a NASCAR race than a serious political forum: the audience may be tuning in as much in anticipation of cringe-inducing pile-ups as they are to watch the typical parry-and-thrust of debate.
Both campaigns, though, offer public confidence in their number twos, while privately hoping that their veeps will do no harm.
For Republicans, Palin’s stumbles with Couric have been a mixed blessing. While the slip-ups raised questions about the Alaska governor’s readiness for national office and increased pressure on her to perform in her sole joint appearance with Biden, they also sent already low expectations plunging even further.
Palin’s aides are seeking to raise the bar for Biden just as it has been lowered for Palin.
“No question Joe Biden has done a lot of debating,” said Palin’s top aide, Tucker Eskew, of the 35-year Senate veteran. “He is a lion of the Senate. Perhaps they think we’re headed into the lion’s den. We’ll take it.”
Eskew said Palin would seek to underscore her everywoman credentials by painting Biden as a creature of the capital.
“Every debate is about contrasts and this debate offers a very clear one,” he said. “It’s real life and real world versus smooth, insider rhetoric.”
In short, he said, it’s “Sarah Palin vs. Washington.”
Left unsaid is that this frame makes it easier for campaign aides to attribute Palin's potential policy missteps to her lack of schooling in the ways of Washington – thus turning flaws into attributes.
Palin’s aides are also hopeful that the 90-minute session will offer her more space to demonstrate her skills – unlike the high-stakes television interviews which were chopped into short segments.
“We benefit from good, long looks,” said Eskew. “It’s to our advantage to get a good, long look.”
Palin has spent most of this week sequestered at McCain’s Sedona, Arizona-area retreat, studying up on issues and huddling with aides and advisers including Eskew, campaign chief Steve Schmidt, McCain foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann and Mark Wallace.
The campaign has kept a tight lid about the details of her preparations, but did release word that she’s been joined by her husband, Todd, and some of her children. They also put out a photograph of Palin and Scheunemann at opposite lecterns doing a run-through on the grass outside McCain’s cabin.
But if Palin will be under an intense spotlight thanks to doubts about her basic competency, Biden’s challenge will be to not prove just how much he knows.
Democrats want Biden to avoid even the appearance of being condescending to his Republican rival and would be pleased with a sedate affair where he is not the center of attention.
“Voters aren't tuning in for a vice presidential food fight,” said Biden spokesman David Wade. “This debate is about two very different philosophies of where to take the country.”
To ready himself for this delicate duty, Biden has been paired with a female politician.
A source involved in the Delaware senator's debate prep said Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm flew to Wilmington, Delaware, from Detroit Sunday with Biden and began the prep sessions Tuesday, and that they involved "primarily conversation, rather than mock debate."
Biden’s focus, the source said, will be "making the case for Obama -- not against Palin."
As difficult as it may seem given her recent public performances, aides to Biden are casting Governor Palin as a knife-fighter who shredded debate foes in Alaska.
"I think Governor Palin will do well. She's good with the proverbial knife and she can deliver a prepared one-liner and quick jab very effectively. She's a former broadcast journalist who excels on television, and she's a career politician who climbed the ladder by out-debating political legends in Alaska," said Biden spokesman David Wade.
"There's a reason they call her barracuda," added another Obama aide, taking the expectation-setting to an even higher level.
The expectations game conceals an underlying reality. Obama's camp chose Biden as a running mate in part because he can be an electrifying, passionate presence on television, one who regularly won post-debate focus groups and snap polls in the primaries, and one who has used his (earned) reputation for gaffes to good comic effect. Palin, by contrast, was chosen for her symbolism and her stump speeches -- not for her mastery of the unpredictable formats of interviews and debates.
Biden's sister and longtime political confidante, Valerie, who was Granholm's media consultant in both her gubernatorial races, was instrumental in bringing in the Michigan governor, who an Obama aide described as a "stellar" debater who "crushed" rivals in 2002 and 2006.
Biden has also been honing his strong-woman-debate skills not only by tapping Granholm as a Palin proxy, but also by consulting Hillary Clinton and Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both of California, in the last few weeks, aides said. Biden communications director Ricki Seidman, who held senior positions in the first-term Clinton White House and directed the former president’s 1992 campaign “War Room,” also played a key role in Biden’s debate workouts.
Other top Democrats playing a role include Obama’s chief strategist David Axelrod, former top Gore aide Ron Klain and Patti Solis Doyle, Hillary Clinton’s onetime campaign manager. The dry runs are taking place at a Sheraton Suites hotel in Wilmington in a converted gym, where two podiums have been set up.
Biden is also spending a lot of time at home and with his family. His son, who serves in the Delaware Army National Guard, deploys Friday for Iraq , and it's Joe Biden's last extended stay at home before the final sprint.
Most vice presidential debates have little impact on the outome of the election. While Lloyd Bentsen’s memorable smackdown of Dan Quayle – “You’re no Jack Kennedy” – is reliably repeated every four years, the reality is that George H.W. Bush still defeated Michael Dukakis with ease in 1988.
“Within a week or so, we were back to doing what we always did: Traveling to secondary media markets, beating up on Dukakis, raising money and stirring up the grass roots,” said Ken Khachigian, a Republican lawyer who worked in the Reagan White House and with Bush-Quayle in ’88.
But because of Palin’s intense popularity in some quarters and her recent stumbles and subsequent mocking on Saturday Night Live, she’s become a pop culture sensation as well as a political phenomenon, a development that stands to alter the traditional dynamic.
“There is tremendous potential for Thursday to have impact,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who was involved in debate preparations for the 1988 and 2000 campaigns. “The interest in Palin transcends politics and that ensures more viewers. And they’re a different kind of viewer.”
With more people watching, including otherwise apolitical voters, more views could be shaped or hardened.
Khachigian and Devine agree that both candidates face similar challenges.
“He has to show some sense of dignity and decorum and at all times appear not condescending,” Khachigian said of Biden.
“She has to appear confident in her own skin and use a nice demeanor to deliver tough words,” he said of Palin. “But the main thing for her is not to appear flustered.”
Said Devine: “They both have to be on guard about falling into stereotypes. For him, that’s that he talks too much and goes off-script. For her it’s that she’s not up to the job.”
“If either reinforces that stereotype," Devine said, "it’s going to be very bad and potentially devastating.”
But Khachigian argues all the anticipation may be for nothing.
“I’d say by Tuesday of next week we’ll all wonder what all the shouting about. By then we’ll have the next debate [between the presidential candidates], have seen Friday’s [release of monthly] unemployment numbers and seen whether the bailout passes.”
Victoria McGrane contributed to this report.