ST. LOUIS — Flummoxed by Katie Couric and ridiculed by Tina Fey, Sarah Palin restored some of her luster Thursday night in a high-stakes vice presidential debate with Joe Biden.
The Alaska governor looked less like the uncertain rookie of recent TV interviews and more like the confident hockey mom who debuted at the Republican convention, casting herself as a down-home outsider who understands everyday Americans in a way Washington insiders don't.
"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.' Never will we be exploited and taken advantage of again by those who are managing our money and loaning us these dollars,'' she said while bashing predatory home lenders.
She never had command of the material the way Biden did. She sprinkled her remarks with terms like "doggone it" and "heck," and cheerfully threw out flippant remarks about Biden and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. And she made no apologies for avoiding direct answers to some questions.
"I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people,'' said Palin, 44, smiling broadly.
Two vice presidential candidates stood on stage at Washington University in St. Louis, but Palin was indisputably the main attraction. Excitement, anxiety and curiosity about America's newest political celebrity was expected to bring ratings surpassing the more than 50-million viewers of last week's McCain-Obama debate.
The pressure on her was intense, with polls showing voters increasingly skeptical about her ability to step in as leader of the free world. She may not have beaten the forceful Biden Thursday night, but she exceeded the low expectations that had been set for her.
"Say it ain't so, Joe. There you go again pointin' backwards,'' she quipped when Biden continued criticizing Bush administration policies and linking them to John McCain.
Biden is a 36-year Senate veteran and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee whose aggressiveness can be a liability. Some observers questioned whether he would hurt himself by being too tough against Palin. But Biden, who was careful to call her "governor" even as she called him "Joe," did not hesitate to repeatedly challenge her criticisms of Obama and assertions that McCain is a maverick.
"For John McCain, there's no end in sight to end this war. A fundamental difference: We will end this war," Biden said.
Palin hit him back later: "Oh, yeah, it's so obvious I'm a Washington outsider. And someone just not used to the way you guys operate. Because here you voted for the war and now you oppose the war. You're one who says, as so many politicians do, 'I was for it before I was against it' or vice versa."
For 90 minutes moderated by PBS's Gwen Ifill, Palin and Biden sparred on taxes, foreign policy, the economy, and which ticket will do more for the middle class. While Palin stressed her outsider, hockey mom bona fides, Biden repeatedly mentioned his middle-class upbringing in Scranton, Pa., and Wilmington, Del.
"Look, all you have to do is go down Union Street with me in Wilmington or go to Katie's Restaurant or walk into Home Depot with me where I spend a lot of time, and you 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,'' Biden said. "And then ask them whether there's a single major initiative that John McCain differs with the president on."
Asked by Ifill how the $700-billion bailout package might affect their campaign pledges for new spending, Biden said that an Obama administration would be unable to double foreign assistance as once suggested. Palin said she saw little changing.
"How long have I been at this, like, five weeks? So there hasn't been a whole lot that I've 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,'' Palin said. "And I don't believe that John McCain has made any promise that he would not be able to keep, either."
On global warming, Palin, who has said she isn't one to blame it all on human activity, said she didn't want to get bogged down in how much might be caused by man-made factors.
"I don't want to argue about the causes," she said. "What I want to argue about is, how are we going to get there to positively affect the impacts?"
Biden jumped: "If you don't understand what the cause is, it's virtually impossible to come up with a solution. We know what the cause is. The cause is manmade."
McCain's surprise choice of Palin as his running mate a month ago thrilled the conservatives who saw a down-home, moose-hunting, social conservative as more than enough reason to put aside their doubts about McCain. Thousands of people poured into the Pinellas GOP headquarters Thursday to pick up tickets for her planned appearance in Clearwater Monday, showing that the excitement for Palin continues.
But since then her shaky performances in rare unscripted moments have turned into a drag on the McCain campaign.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll this week found six in 10 Americans viewed her as insufficiently experienced to be an effective president, and a third are less likely to support McCain because of his running mate. The Pew Research Center found that since September the percentage of voters who viewed her as ready to become president if necessary has dropped from 52 percent to 37 percent.
As the debate ended, Palin looked pleased. "I like being able to answer these tough questions without the filter, even, of the mainstream media kind of telling viewers what they've just heard. I'd rather be able to just speak to the American people like we just did."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727)893-8241.