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She winked. He smiled. They each played to their strengths and side-stepped their weaknesses. Neither one lost.

But the question of who won last night's one and only vice-presidential debate, is an entirely more complicated question that rests on the more intangible and variable measure called expectations. The extent to which the candidate could meet or exceed the standards viewers had coming into the debate, dictated how their performaces were perceived.

By those criteria, Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska had the easier task for the night, and she may have won. If there was an upside to the disasters of the Katie Couric interviews last week for the GOP, it was that they so lowered the bar for Palin that she could beat expectations simply by making sure there was nothing hanging out of her nose before taking the stage.

In so many ways, this was the Sarah Palin show. People tuned in to see her ‚ÄĒ to see if she would screw up. She did not do that. She did not bomb, and she did not embarrass herself or her party.

Instead, she held her ground by being folksy and down to earth, looking into the camera and talking directly to the "American people," as she repeated over and over again. It is not everyday that a candidate winks at people in the audience and uses the word 'heck' in between counter-punches: "It's not the American people's fault that the economy is hurting like it is," Palin said, "but we have an opportunity to learn a heck of a lot of good lessons through this and say never again will we be taken advantage of."


Biden perhaps surpassed expectations, too. He made no careless or flip comments, and he did not stray into unappealing wonkishness. And for all the professional pondering in recent days about whether his mouth would get the better of him, Biden performed as most people expected.

Palin was not able to match Joe Biden's command of the facts and quick analysis of the issues, but she gave a respectable performance, In a post-debate CNN poll, 84 percent of people said that she did better than expected. Given what the last week has been like for her, that number seems low, but her immediate struggles may be tempered for now.

In part because she was the new face and in part because she had such an awful run up to the debate, Palin had much more room to grow. She showed signs of wear, leaning a bit more clumsily on talking points and slogans as the contest went on. But the fact that she stood on the stage with a clearly more prepared Biden for 90 minutes, slugging it out, attacking, never backing down, allowed her to advance several steps ahead of where people thought she would be. In surpassing those expectations she helped herself enormously. She likely did her ticket some good too, at least temporarily.


Apparently John McCain taught her something about tactics versus strategy. Palin made effective use of the tactic of answering questions that were not asked and she remorselessly stuck to her coached scripts. Occasionally, that made her look as if she was involved in a completely different debate from Biden. But overall, it worked to her advantage.

Winning the expectations game, though, isn't the same as winning the debate. Early polls showed that Biden won big among independent voters who watched the debate. And it is the independent voters both camps are playing to.

The question remains whether the vice presidential debate will ultimately make any difference to the overall outcome of the election.


My guess is, "heck no."

Terence Samuel is deputy editor of The Root.