Last night America sat down to watch Joe Biden debate Sarah Palin, in what Washington Post scribe Dana Milbank called "what may have been the most public I.Q. test ever administered." The expectations for Biden weren't high (would he commit a gaffe? Would he bully her?), but no bar could have possibly been lower than that for Palin, who was coming off of a string of nervous, evasive, and at times nonsensical interviews with Katie Couric. Biden was wonky, confident, and showed off his experience, but he rarely connected with the camera. Palin avoided answering many of moderator Gwen Ifill's questions and repeated her talking points relentlessly, but her eye contact with the camera and her chipper folksy mannerisms (the winking!) made her more fun to watch.
It was a performance we could have predicted — Biden did better on the issues but by being funnier and much stronger than expected, Palin scored major points for herself. Who won? Maybe nobody — it wouldn't be a bad thing if the vice-presidents started to matter less in this election. But just as we could have also predicted, our punditry is split — left-leaning writers hand the trophy to Biden, and conservatives give the nod — and wink — to Palin.
• Though much of the pundit conversations immediately after the debate were about Sarah Palin, Mark Halperin points out that insta-polls of uncommitted voters showed a firm Biden win. [Time]
• "It really was the Tale of Two Debates," writes Andrew Romano. "In one ring was Sarah Palin battling Tina Fey's impression of Sarah Palin. In the other was Joe Biden battling John McCain." [Stumper/Newsweek]
• Lynn Sweet observed that Palin "seemed to be reading off some papers on her podium." [Sun-Times]
• E.J. Dionne pointed out that early on last night, Palin admitted she might not answer some questions as moderator Gwen Ifill posed them. "This was the Alaska governor's way of saying she was going to stick to the talking points she had stuffed into her head, no matter what the subject." [WP]
• Chris Cillizza noted that there were a lot of numbers and facts thrown around (and disputed). "Average voters are savvy: they know that numbers and figures can be twisted to a partisan purpose and, therefore, tend to discount the laundry lists of statistics that politicians throw around in debates," he points out. This was echoed by CNN's riveting audience meter of uncommitted Ohio voters — when Biden and Palin got into these squabbles, those little green and red lines plummeted. [Fix/WP]
• Pete Wallsten looks beyond the debate at McCain's increasingly bad poll numbers. "While Republicans will surely declare victory in the debate (and breathe deep sighs of relief), major questions remain for the GOP ticket." [LAT]
• John Miller was struck by what Palin missed, including an early chance to discuss health care and an opportunity to chat up missile defense (an Alaskan strength). He also took exception to her point about boosting school funding — "Huh? If conservatives believe anything about education, it's that higher spending doesn't equal better schools." [Corner/National Review]
• David Kusnet noted that people not expecting much from Palin before the debate were ignoring her "emotional intelligence." "For all her unfamiliarity with many issues — and the unpopularity of her positions — Palin’s performance made sense emotionally, with one glaring exception." That exception being, of course, when Biden choked up about raising his son as a single dad after the death of his wife and daughter. Palin completely ignored this moment and did not reach out to him over their shared love of family. [Plank/National Review]
• Jonah Goldberg took issue with some of Biden's facts, and how his "gravitas" helped him seem believable. [Corner/National Review]
• Ari Berman points out that because the debate did not include follow-up questions, Palin was able to stick to "boilerplate" and not "stumble as she did during the Katie Couric interviews." [Nation]
• Andrew Sullivan agreed. "What we need now is a press conference with Palin. She needs to be forced to answer follow-ups." [Atlantic]
• Jon Cohen notes that network reaction polls showed nearly all viewers thought recently controversial moderator Gwen Ifill treated both "fairly." She was the third winner in this. [WP]