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ONLINE EXCLUSIVE

Insiders See More Than One Way To Win Debate

When Asked Which Candidate Was More 'Knowledgeable,' Biden Was The Clear Winner, But Palin Wins Praise For Beating Expectations

Related CoverageThe 2008 Debates

Neither threw a knockout punch in the vice presidential debate on Thursday night, but both Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin came out winners -- at least in their own corners -- according to a survey of Political Insiders for NationalJournal.com.

Palin may have gained a little more for rising to the occasion under the klieg lights of a nationally televised debate after she had been battered in recent media interviews, especially with CBS News anchor Katie Couric. But even so, there's little evidence or bravado in Republican ranks that the first-term Alaska governor was able to shift the dynamic in the presidential race, which public opinion polls show favoring Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.

 

And despite a performance that got solid reviews from most Republican Insiders, about a quarter of GOP Insiders continue to believe that Palin was not a good running-mate choice by their presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Generally, supporters of both Biden and Palin said their candidate held their own on critical aspects of debate performance. For instance, a solid majority -- 67 percent -- of Democratic Insiders said Biden was more "believable" than Palin and 30 percent said the two were equally believable. Among Republican Insiders, 52 percent said Palin was more believable than Biden and 30 percent said the vice presidential candidates were equally believable (19 percent thought Biden was more believable).

 

"Biden's command of the facts seemed believable," said one Democratic Insider. "Palin's cursory understanding of the issues at hand may have staved off disaster but could not have persuaded the undecideds that she was capable of being president."

Echoed another, "Biden was much more credible while Palin's recent memorization of positions [was] often evident in the hour and a half."

Republican Insiders said Palin came across as more believable because of her personality and background. "Palin was more credible on a personal level," maintained one GOP Insider. "Washington is seen as a problem, and she's obviously not of Washington."

Another Republican Insider noted, "She is not duplicitous." And a third, who thought both candidates were believable enough, said, "Palin was so natural and personally compelling that she gets the edge."

 

A similar pattern prevailed when Insiders graded candidates on how "comfortable" they were on stage. Republicans Insiders gave Palin a narrower nod: 38 percent said that characteristic described Palin more than Biden and another 38 percent said the two were equally comfortable. A majority of Democratic Insiders -- 53 percent -- said the two candidates both came across as comfortable, while 44 percent thought Biden was more comfortable than Palin.

But when Insiders were asked which candidate was more "knowledgeable," Biden was the clear winner. Not surprisingly, a whopping 97 percent of the Democratic Insiders thought Biden was more knowledgeable than Palin. But 61 percent of the Republican Insiders also gave Biden the nod over Palin in that category, while 38 percent said both candidates demonstrated they were knowledgeable.

"He had his version of the facts, and he used them," said one Republican Insider who rated Biden ahead on this quality. "The difference in the depth of knowledge between them was shocking," said another chagrined GOP Insider. "You're kidding, right?" joked a third who found Palin lacking.

Democrats have complained that their last two vice presidential nominees, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, were never able -- some say willing -- to attack Dick Cheney, and by extension George W. Bush, in the 2000 and 2004 VP debates. Biden, whose approach is more aggressive, did not disappoint on that count in his face-off with Palin.

Biden "abided by the political Hippocratic oath and did no harm," said one Democratic Insider. "He drove middle class-economic trust argument especially well [and] always brought it back to McCain."

Echoed another Democratic Insider, "He effectively tied McCain to Bush and did not let Palin make her case that McCain represents change. Palin exceeded expectations but in the end it's not about her and she did nothing to 'change' the game."

Democrats were not completely dismissive of Palin's performance. "In less perilous times, one could see how she might get the benefit of the doubt from independent persuadables," observed one Democratic Insider. "But at this moment in time, taking the chance that she might one day soon occupy the Oval Office is a leap of faith most undecided voters will not make."

A few Democrats gave her credit for simply staying in the ring with Biden. "Palin helped more because her last few weeks have been dreadful and a bad night could have been really damaging to McCain," observed one Democratic Insider. "Senator Biden gets very high marks for his debate performance but Gov. Palin was in the hot seat."

Another said that Palin was "helped more because [the McCain-Palin ticket] were in free-fall and she stopped it; not because she hurt Obama or drew new supporters to McCain."

Republican Insiders were likewise relieved that Palin was able to not only stay on the stage with the veteran senator, who had twice sought the Democratic presidential nomination, but also press McCain's case.

"Most Republicans were expecting the 'worst case scenario' but she defied expectations, again," said one GOP Insider. "She was way beyond what anyone expected or had a right to expect," said another. "She went right after average Americans unapologetically and connected."

But while an overwhelming number of Republican Insiders thought Palin had gained more for her ticket in the debate, some also betrayed a lack of confidence in what comes next for the McCain candidacy.

"Such is the state of the race that by beating expectations -- even if she didn't 'beat' Joe Biden -- Sarah Palin halted the death spiral and McCain-Palin lives to fight another day," said one GOP Insider.

"The collective Republican party was able to stop holding its breath," said another. "A bad performance may have been the last blow to the McCain campaign -- her performance allows the campaign to live and keep fighting."

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