From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Carrie Dann
ST. LOUIS -- As many had said, last night's debate was about one person, Sarah Palin. And for those tuning in wondering if we'd see a train wreck between Palin's inexperience and Joe Biden's verbosity, well, we didn't get it. Palin started strong and proved to be a folksy cliché machine, which probably came across as extremely charming to some, particularly to Republicans who sound relieved this morning. She lit up the screen at times with her smile and occasional winks. She proved extremely adept at avoiding questions or topics she didn't want to answer, which is the big difference between her fairly smooth performance last night and her near-disastrous performances in those one-on-one interviews. Perhaps more than anything else, Palin rehabilitated her image and probably stopped her image nosedive. And she came across as a better advocate for her candidate, John McCain, than Joe Biden was for his guy, Barack Obama. Biden, too often, defended his own record first before touting Obama's. By the way, if you got the sense during the debate that McCain was the center of the conversation and not Obama, that's because he was. By our count, McCain was referenced by name nearly twice as much as Obama. (Which may or may not be a good thing; after all, doesn't the McCain camp want Obama to be the referendum?)
*** As for Biden: He had a senator's grasp of the facts, and we mean that mostly as a compliment. But longtime Biden watchers could tell he was struggling with how to deal with her. He spent the first half of the debate on the defensive. It wasn't until the last half hour that Biden found his inner-Goldilocks and found the "just right" tone in dealing with Palin. In fact, Biden ratcheting up his seriousness and emotion may have made Palin's folksiness seem tonally off for a little bit toward the end. If Palin started strong, Biden proved to be the better closer. As we said yesterday, if Biden turned out to be the subject of post-debate chatter, then he had a bad night. As it turns out, he's not the story and the Obama campaign is satisfied with that even if the media elite is scoring this better for Palin than the insta-polls.
Video: Watch the entire vice presidential debate between Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware and Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska.
*** The bottom line: This debate was about Palin surviving and survive she did. Neither candidate committed a major gaffe, and there were probably no moments that will get replayed over and over. Indeed, the debate may have a shelf life of about 24 to 48 hours, and that's about it. We imagine this event quickly fades as attention today turns to the House vote on the bailout or next Tuesday's presidential debate. Palin did well enough to prevent the negative storyline that developed all day Thursday regarding McCain's chances in November. Had Palin stumbled badly, that news -- combined with the decision by the campaign to scale back its campaign in Michigan -- would have created a terrible storyline. Palin's solid performance on the style front prevented the worst outcome. But did it move the needle in a positive direction for McCain? Unlikely. At this point, the number of mega-game changing events for McCain are dwindling. And since he's the candidate trailing, that's not a good sign. The pressure is now on McCain next Tuesday to get his campaign back on track. Given the limited window McCain's facing, this likely means we should expect a very aggressive McCain in the remaining debates.
*** One lingering question: If Palin seems to be doing well with press reviews, then why didn't she win the snap polls or the focus groups? One explanation may be that the last two weeks so damaged her political reputation that as long as Biden didn't step in it, a majority of the public was just going to assume Biden was the better candidate. There's also the possibility that Palin's folksy charm (and folksy clichés) played well for a while, but didn't wear well. Voters looking for a friend found one in Palin; voters worried about a vice president who seemed to have a senator's like grasp of the issues, gave the benefit of the doubt to Biden. Of an even simpler explanation: Voters watching are giving Obama-Biden the benefit of the doubt right now because they're predisposed to being against the Republicans -- meaning McCain and Palin simply have higher hurdles to clear with rank-and-file voters to prove they are going to be positive change agents from Bush.
*** Wolverines!!!! But the most significant campaign development yesterday was not here in St. Louis, but in Michigan, where the McCain camp decided to pull back its resources and focus on other states. The campaign did its best to spin the move in a conference call with reporters, saying it was Obama who is on the defensive and that Obama too had given up on states (Alaska, Georgia, North Dakota). But with fewer and fewer opportunities to turn blue states red -- Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and (perhaps) Maine are the remaining options, and he trails in all of them -- McCain might be forced to draw an inside straight to win the election. If he's unable to win a single Kerry state, he would have to hold onto the battlegrounds of Colorado, Florida, Indiana North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia, where he's either trailing or essentially tied. McCain's path to 270, if this trajectory in the race continues, is narrowing.
*** It's the economy (and money), stupid: Of all the states to become the first one the McCain campaign decided to pull out of, Michigan comes as a bit of a surprise. After all, the numbers have looked worse in Iowa and New Mexico than Michigan. So what happened? Two simple reasons: the economic collapse and money. As one Republican put it to us, when the country gets an economic cold, Michigan gets the flu. McCain's numbers were dropping faster for McCain than in any other battleground these last two weeks. But had McCain had Obama's financial resources, the campaign would not be pulling out of Michigan. We're now at that point in the campaign when Obama's resource advantage is starting to take a toll. McCain has to make hard choices now. He couldn't target Michigan, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania -- and also defend Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Indiana, and Virginia. The downturn in the economy has put more states in play for Obama (see Indiana) and taken away opportunities for McCain (see Michigan). How narrow is McCain's path to 270 right now? He's added Maine to the battleground since he can potentially snag one electoral vote in the state's more rural 2nd Congressional District.
*** Campaign talking point of the day: Speaking of the economy, the Labor Department is reporting this morning that employers cut 159,000 jobs in September -- the biggest monthly job loss in five years. The unemployment rate remains unchanged at 6.1%.
*** All systems go: Per NBC's Mike Viqueira, it's all systems go this morning in the House for the big vote on the $700 billion, er $800 billion, rescue/bailout package. The fact that they are going ahead is evidence that they have the votes. They wouldn't be doing so if the outcome were in question. One result of the debate in Congress is that Congressional races, more so than the presidential, are being defined by the economy and anger at Washington.
*** On the trail: McCain campaigns in Pueblo, CO. Obama holds a campaign event in Abington, PA. Palin raises money in Dallas, TX and then meets with T. Boone Pickens there. And Biden, in Delaware, speaks at son Beau's deployment ceremony.
Countdown to the second presidential debate: 4 days
Countdown to the third presidential debate: 12 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 32 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 109 days
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