I am always wary about writing about US Presidential politics because, frankly, so much of the dynamics of politics there is (after a lot of thought and scratching my head) a complete mystery to me. The fact that we speak more or less the same language makes people tend to think we are the same in other ways, but over the years I've come to realise that there are some pretty major differences that make a lot of what goes on there less straightforward that one might think; no doubt they feel the same way about the British. Anyway, let's plough on.
Since McCain and Obama chose their respective running-mates, Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, some weeks back I've been reading quite a lot about them, although probably more about Palin than Biden as she seemed to be the one that most US commentators focussed on, because of her newness to national politics. I've also been reading a lot of blog commentary about her, mostly very sceptical or worse, but I've also made a point of reading some of the 'Republican blogs' where she seems to be well-liked. No doubt there are blogs about Biden, but I haven't come across them so far - he is so much better known in national politics, that there seems to be less need felt to focus on him. As a result I, as an 'ignorant furriner', know a lot less about him than I do about her - so I've gone to that 'fount of all knowledge' Wikipedia to read his Bio; for balance, Palin's is here.
There has been a lot of talk in recent days/weeks that Sarah Palin is a 'joke' and by choosing her as his VP running-mate McCain has scuppered his chances of victory at the election; US politics and commentary on it is so 'partisan', however, that it is very difficult to establish who is saying what and what their motives are. Having read a lot about her, particularly some of her recent televised interviews, her being an in-over-her-depth joke seemed to be the reality, but I just had a niggling feeling at the back of my mind that it is very unwise to underestimate her, despite her rough edges and the controversy surrounding her political and personal history in Alaska. As for Biden, well the 'vibe' seemed to be that he was very knowledgable about 'foreign affairs', an area where Obama is weak, but that he was 'gaffe-prone', and I've seen several video recordings of examples of this in recent weeks - interestingly though, he always seems to have the mental and verbal agility to recover very rapidly from these lapses.
Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to watch the whole debate 'live' on television and, courtesy of the BBC News channel was able to do this as they carried the live feed. Of course it was in the middle of the night here in the UK (2.00 to 3.30 am) so I watched it whilst snuggled up below my duvet and trying to keep awake. A blow-by-blow blog of the event on the BBC website is here
My initial impression, for about the first 30 minutes or so, was that Palin seemed to be wrong-footing Biden pretty consistently with her rapid-fire repartee which was both 'folksy' and 'emotional', whereas he seemd rather wooden, even if the content of what he was saying had a LOT more substance, even at that stage.
I thought the 'moderation' of the debate was almost non-existent; neither candidate was really challenged in any way and it seemed both could say more or less whatever they wanted and not be 'called' on it except in the most low-key kind of way (I understand that the rules under which the moderator, someone called Ifill, operated were hammered out in great detail between the candidates' campaign staff so she was probably very restricted in what she was allowed to do, so that may explain some of this, but still). Certainly in the segment on 'homosexuality' and 'marriage' for gays, Biden was pretty clear on what he was saying, and I'm sure some of the more conservative viewing public will have been duly outraged; Palin was in one way pretty clear about where she stood on the issue too, although I think she was rather ambiguous in some of what she said and made remarks about what Biden had said that were 'emotional' rather than 'factual' to appeal to the Republican evangelical 'base' undoubtedly, and she fudged one or two key aspects. Ifill's moderation of this segment was particuarly low-key. This is a 'hot button' issue in the US so a little bit more clarity could have been forced out of Palin, I think - although the moderator's guidelines, as I mentioned above, may have prevented this happening (I know nothing about Ifill's interviewing style and reputation, however, so cannot really make any kind of proper judgement about this).
In the second thirty-minutes my impression was that Biden began to fight back against the barrage of empty 'sound-bite' nonsense being spouted, with great verve and gusto, by Palin, which was beginning to grate on my ears by this time as it was becoming very repetitive and seemed pre-scripted (and being read from notes on her lectern). However, Biden remained reasonably 'respectful' and in check and he didn't ramble on too much (something he is prone to do, I undertsand) although he almost forgot to follow the stern warnings he will probably have received about this, from Democratic Party media advisers, on one or two occasions.
In the third half-hour, however, he seemed to pull the gloves off and the disdainful tone of some of his responses to the empty platitudes Palin continued to mouth (even though she still had flashes of coherence and valid point-making) became more evident. However, I didn't feel he did this in an overly dismissive way likely to alienate viewers, or at least that was my impression.
My summary would have to be that whilst it was a relatively-easy 'win' for Joe Biden, Sarah Palin did a LOT better than many seem to have predicted and did not, probably, adversely affect the McCain too much; on the other hand I don't think she will have helped it much either so it was probably 'neutral' in that respect.
Two live-blog reports of what happened in the debate from US-based bloggers are here (Andrew Sullivan) and here and here (Nate and Sean of the FiveThirtyEight polling-based blog). Given the declared political views of all of them, I'd say their reporting is pretty balanced and any 'bias' that creeps into their remarks is very clear and easily-discounted.
UPDATE: Thru Election Debates (in turn thru mr eugenides) comes the link to this video-recording of the full debate on YouTube: