Winking Palin survives debate with folksy style

ST. LOUIS Fri Oct 3, 2008 10:16am EDT

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ST. LOUIS (Reuters) - With a wink at the camera and a folksy "doggone it," Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin on Thursday survived a high-pressure debate with Democrat Joe Biden to turn the page on a rocky two weeks.

Whether it will make any difference in Republican John McCain's increasingly uphill battle to defeat Democrat Barack Obama in the November 4 election remains to be seen.

Coming into the debate, Alaska Gov. Palin had been in a tailspin for a couple of weeks after a dream start as McCain's running mate.

She has been lampooned on late-night television and drawn criticism for a CBS News interview in which she struggled to explain such matters as her belief that her state's proximity to Russia made her knowledgeable about Russian affairs.

So the expectations were set low for the 44-year-old self-styled "hockey mom" for her televised encounter with Biden, a veteran senator from Delaware who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

She wasted little time in trying to connect with a television audience of tens of millions. She winked at the camera as soon as she stepped on stage and asked Biden if it was okay to call him Joe.

When Biden raised the issue of whether Americans were better off now than they were when President George W. Bush took office in 2001, Palin accused him of looking backward instead of ahead.

'SAY IT AIN'T SO, JOE'

"Aw say it ain't so, Joe. There you go again pointing backwards again, there, you prefaced your whole comment with the Bush administration. Now doggone it, let's look ahead and tell Americans what we have planned to do for them in the future," she said.

Snap polls by CBS and CNN said most viewers thought Biden, who curbed his tendency to be verbose and maintained a respectful tone toward Palin, won the debate. But Republicans looking for signs of hope that McCain might be able to turn around a recent tumble in the polls a month before the election were delighted at her performance.

"The expectations were low and she cleared them with flying colors and she has put McCain back in the race," said Republican strategist Scott Reed.

Obama's senior adviser David Axelrod said Palin showed tremendous talent in connecting with people in a folksy way -- as he had expected.

But Axelrod brought the argument back to who would do better improving the U.S. economy -- Obama or McCain.

"I think it's always nice to get a wink, but it's also nice to get a paycheck, and that's what most people are concerned about," he said in the post-debate "spin room" at Washington University.

Democratic strategist Liz Chadderdon said she thought Biden was terrific and could easily be seen as vice presidential, but that Palin also came well-prepared.

"Whoever did her debate prep did a really good job," she said by telephone. "I thought she was good. I think she could've been a heckuva lot worse."

Relief at Palin's performance swept through the McCain camp, eager to move Palin past her recent tough times.

LIKE A CAR RACE

Bruce Merrill, professor of mass communications at Arizona State University, seemed to represent the view of many Americans who were eager to tune in to the event, comparing it to watching a professional car race.

"It was like people going to the Indianapolis 500 to see a wreck. I think a lot of people tuned in to see a wreck and there was no wreck," he said.

Paul Brace, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston, thought Biden was stronger, although Palin avoided making gaffes.

"She seemed probably quite authoritative. Her weakest point probably was foreign policy where it looked like she was reciting talking points, but I thought she did a good job reciting them," he said.

(Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor, editing by Alan Elsner)

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