CINCINNATI (Reuters) - The morning after the most anticipated vice-presidential debate in American history, U.S. voters seemed to share a common reaction: Republican Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin wasn’t that bad after all.
“Palin held her ground very well,” said Cincinnati entrepreneur and Republican Bryan Welage, 42. “I know there had been some issues with whether she would be good at a debate, but I thought she did very well.”
New York tour guide and Democrat Joe Kovack, 54, agreed.
“I thought that the debate was even, even. I was surprised that Governor Palin held her own,” said Kovack as he waited for tourists in Times Square.
With just a month to go until the U.S. presidential election on November 4, the debate on Thursday night between Republican vice-presidential nominee Palin and her Democratic rival Sen. Joe Biden captured America’s attention.
That in itself is a bit unusual. For months, the election campaign has focused on who will be the next president: Republican John McCain, 72, a self-described maverick and long-time senator from Arizona, or Democrat Barack Obama, 47, a first-term Illinois senator who calls for hope and change after eight years under Republican President George W. Bush.
But McCain’s choice of the little-known Palin for his running mate stunned Americans. Voters and political pundits alike have been transfixed by the first-term governor and former mayor of a small town ever since.
The Palin-Biden debate appears likely to stand as the most watched of any nationally televised political debate in 16 years, far surpassing last week’s first debate between McCain and Obama, according to early data by Nielsen Media Research.
The heat was on Palin, a 44-year-old self-styled “hockey mom,” after a rocky television interview last week in which she struggled to answer several questions and she was lampooned afterward for her suggestion that she had foreign policy experience because Alaska was close to Russia.
But viewers almost universally said Palin held her own against Biden in Thursday’s debate.
A CNN poll of 611 adult Americans who watched the encounter found 51 percent thought Biden did the better job in the debate, while 36 percent said Palin did. But an overwhelming 84 percent said Palin did better than expected.
“I didn’t think there was a winner,” said Cincinnati’s Welage, a long-time Republican. “But Palin turned the ball very good on Biden, implying that she’s one of the regular people, she and her husband have always been middle-class.”
Chris Longley, 47, of St. Paul, Minnesota, said he liked Palin’s performance and is leaning toward McCain.
“She seemed to talk directly to the people. I responded to that,” Longley said. “She won on style. He won on substance.”
Lois Hanson, 78, was also impressed by Palin -- in part because of how much criticism had been heaped on the Alaskan governor, a mother of five.
“As a mother I know how difficult it is. She has so much good sense. They’ve been extremely hard on this woman. That made it even more impressive, what she accomplished last night,” said Hanson, a resident of Minneapolis.
Morning newspapers across America gave similar reviews: Palin fumbled an answer or two, yes, but also landed a few zingers and ultimately did better than most had expected.
“She displayed the political strength we saw in her address to the Republican National Convention. She knows how to speak to America’s heart,” read a Chicago Tribute editorial.
The New York Times, attacked recently by the McCain campaign as being pro-Obama, said Palin had performed so badly in the campaign that she was bound to surpass expectations.
In an editorial, the Times said “all the candidate has to do is show up, say one or two sensible things and avoid an election-defining gaffe. By that standard, the governor of Alaska beat expectations.”
Not everyone applauded Palin’s debate performance.
Phoenix cafe owner and Obama supporter Jeff Fischer said he threw his chair at the television in frustration.
“I felt I was being insulted as a citizen of the United States -- the potential for Sarah Palin to represent us,” said Fischer. “The answers she provided were empty.”
Keith Riffe, a retired accountant on vacation in New York City from Yakima, Washington, said he was disappointed with Palin’s debate performance but still believes she can bring a fresh perspective to the White House.
“I was a bit disappointed in Palin because I thought her acceptance speech was extraordinary but she does not seem to do as well in a question and answer,” said Riffe, a Republican.
“I think she’s tough enough, she’s smart enough, she’s articulate enough to (be a catalyst for change) -- if she doesn’t get the disease of Washington.”
For some voters, Palin could do nothing in the debate to outweigh their conviction that she was too inexperienced to be president if something happened to McCain.
“Palin repeated her talking points and wasn’t a total disaster,” said Frank Vazquez, 51, as he rode the morning train into Chicago. “But nothing she said altered the obvious fact: if McCain dies, she is simply not qualified to be president.”
Additional reporting by Matt Bigg in Atlanta, Nick Carey in Chicago, Claudia Parsons in New York, Tim Gaynor in Phoenix and Todd Melby in Minneapolis; Editing by John O'Callaghan