WASHINGTON — The presidential campaign that has kept Sarah Palin largely under wraps now says her chance to shine unscripted can't come soon enough.
With growing concern among some conservative leaders over the Alaska governor's readiness to be Republican Sen. John McCain's vice president, and with new polls showing her popularity has softened, the McCain campaign says tonight's televised debate will allow her to make her case directly to the American people.
Palin is scheduled to meet Democratic Sen. Joe Biden, Sen. Barack Obama's running mate, in their first and only debate at 9 p.m. at Washington University in St. Louis.
The 90-minute debate will be moderated by Gwen Ifill of PBS and will cover domestic and foreign policy.
"It gives her a chance to show America again why she was so popular when she was first introduced by Sen. McCain, to show why she was one of the most popular governors in the country, and to talk about the reform that is at the heart of the McCain-Palin campaign," said Bob Heckman, the campaign's director of conservative outreach.
"It's always a benefit when you can bypass the filter of the media and go straight to the American people. We're looking forward to her being able to show America who she is."
Palin has spent most of the week preparing at McCain's ranch in Sedona, Ariz. Heckman assured a weekly gathering of conservative leaders and activists in Washington on Wednesday that she performed well in debates during her 2006 governor's race — when she faced sitting Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski — and that it's dangerous to underestimate her.
Asked about some conservative pundits, including George Will, Kathleen Parker and David Brooks, who have questioned her fitness in the past week, Heckman said, "She should be able to dispel the mischaracterizations that she's ... not up for the job.
"Those (characterizations) are not true. And better than us responding to it is for her to show the American people herself."
Americans gave Palin rave reviews after her speech at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., a month ago, polls show.
While she remains a major draw for McCain campaign events from Florida to Colorado, she has submitted to only a handful of interviews since her nomination. She seemed shaky on details of foreign and domestic policy, particularly in a series of conversations with CBS News anchor Katie Couric released over the past six days.
In the segment that aired Tuesday on the CBS Evening News, Palin struggled when Couric asked what publications she reads to stay up on national and world events.
"I've read most of them, again with a great appreciation for the press, for the media," Palin said.
Couric: "What specifically?"
Palin: "Um, all of them, any of them that have been in front of me all these years."
And in a segment that aired on the show Wednesday, Palin described herself as a federalist — who opposes an overreaching federal government — yet was unable to cite a single U.S. Supreme Court ruling that she disagreed with except for Roe vs. Wade, which resulted in legalized abortion.
"Well, let's see. There's, of course, in the great history of America rulings there have been rulings, that's never going to be absolute consensus by every American," Palin said, according to a transcription by the Associated Press. "And there are, those issues, again, like Roe vs. Wade where I believe are best held on a state level and addressed there. So you know, going through the history of America, there would be others but. …"
Asked again to name a decision she opposed, Palin said, "Well, I could think of, of any again, that could be best dealt with on a more local level. Maybe I would take issue with. But you know, as mayor, and then as governor and even as a vice president, if I'm so privileged to serve, wouldn't be in a position of changing those things, but in supporting the law of the land as it reads today."
By keeping Palin relatively sequestered, the McCain campaign may have helped raise even higher the stakes of tonight's debate and ensured that her every statement will be scoured.
Ron Bonjean, a veteran Republican consultant, said Americans are hungry to hear more from Palin.
"People want to know who she is, and what her political positions are, but more in a spontaneous fashion," Bonjean said. "The problem is because her image has been rather controlled by the McCain campaign, a gigantic bubble has been created that can burst if she does not do well."
The strategy has potential benefits, such as limiting negative media coverage, "but it does have the potential to backfire," he said. "Like the Katie Couric interview."
By contrast, there's little buzz about what Biden, 65, a senator for more than 30 years, might say, though he does have a history of sticking his foot in his mouth.
Palin remains a political phenomenon. Get outside Washington and into many Republican strongholds, and Palin is seen as McCain's savior, a likable outsider with a common sense approach that resonates with ordinary Americans.
Although a new CNN/Time poll finds that 47 percent of Americans believe she has what it takes to be president and 49 percent don't, she continues to rally the conservative Republican base. In Mississippi, which hosted the first presidential debate last week, many voters said they were more excited about Palin's debate than McCain's.
"I've had lots of friends who said maybe McCain was too far to the left for them, and they weren't going to vote," said Pam Carson, 59, a Republican who owns a department store on the town square in Houston, Miss. "Then she brought fire into it. She's just amazing."
Wes Allison can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 463-0577