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VP Debate: No Fury In Missouri


It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Ari Shapiro. Last night, vice-presidential candidates Sarah Palin and Joe Biden met for their only debate. They clashed over their running mates' positions on regulating Wall Street, the war in Iraq, energy policy and global warming.

MONTAGNE: The debate was held at Washington University in St. Louis and moderated by PBS's Gwen Ifill. NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson, was there.

MARA LIASSON: The most anticipated vice-presidential debate in history is over and no, Joe Biden did not commit any gaffes, and no, Sarah Palin did not struggle to answer the questions. Instead, Biden was crisp and to the point, and Palin more than surpassed the low expectations she had set for herself with a stumbling performance in a set of recent television interviews. Palin had the highest hurdle last night. Right from the start, she was direct and folksy when both candidates were asked about Washington's reaction to the Wall Street meltdown.

(Soundbite of vice-presidential debate, October 2, 2008)

Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska; 2008 Republican Vice Presidential Nominee): You know, I think a good barometer here, as we try to figure out, has this been a good time or a bad time in America's economy, is go to a kid's soccer game on Saturday, and turn to any parent there on the sideline and ask them, how are you feeling about the economy? And I'll bet you, you're going to hear some fear in that parent's voice, fear regarding the few investments that some of us have in the stock market - did we just take a major hit with those investments? Fear about, how are we going to afford to send our kids to college? A fear, as small-business owners, perhaps, how are we going to borrow any money to increase inventory or hire more people? The barometer there, I think, is going to be resounding that our economy is hurting and the federal government has not provided the sound oversight that we need and that we deserve.

LIASSON: The McCain-Palin ticket has dropped in the polls ever since the financial crisis began. And last night, Joe Biden pressed the Democrats' advantage on this issue.

Senator JOE BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware; 2008 Democratic Vice Presidential Nominee): It was two Mondays ago John McCain said at 9 o'clock in the morning that the fundamentals of the economy were strong. Two weeks before that, he said George - we'd made great economic progress under George Bush's policies. Nine o'clock, the economy was strong. Eleven o'clock that same day two Mondays ago, John McCain said that we have an economic crisis. That doesn't make John McCain a bad guy, but it does point out he's out of touch. Those folks on the sidelines knew that two months ago.

LIASSON: Asked who was at fault in the crisis, Biden placed the blame on deregulation - pushed, he said, by President Bush and John McCain. Palin blamed greedy lenders.

Gov. PALIN: Darn right it was the predator lenders who tried to talk Americans into thinking that it was smart to buy a $300,000 house if we could only afford a $100,000 house. There was deception there. And there was greed, and there is corruption on Wall Street. And we need to stop that - again, John McCain and I, that commitment that we have made and we are going to follow through on that, getting rid of that corruption. One thing that Americans do at this time also, though, is let's commit ourselves - just everyday American people, Joe Sixpack, hockey moms across the nation - I think we need to band together and say, never again. Never will we be exploited and taken advantage of again by those who are managing our money and loaning us these dollars.

LIASSON: But Biden wasn't going to let Palin out-soccer-mom him. He had his own Joe Sixpack to talk about.

Sen. BIDEN: I was recently at my local gas station, asked a guy named Joey Danko (ph). I said, Joey, how much it cost to fill your tank? You know what his answer was? He said, I don't know, Joe. I never have enough money to do it. The middle class needs relief, tax relief. They need it now. They need help now. The focus will change with Barack Obama.

LIASSON: The two clashed on Iraq. A combative Palin accused the Democrats of wanting to pull out regardless of conditions on the ground.

Gov. PALIN: Your plan is a white flag of surrender in Iraq. And that is not what our troops need to hear today, that's for sure. And it's not what our nation needs to be able to count on. You guys opposed the surge. The surge works. Barack Obama still can't admit the surge works. We'll know when we are finished in Iraq, when the Iraqi government can govern its people, and when the Iraqi security forces can secure its people.

LIASSON: And she used Biden's own words to make the argument against Barack Obama.

Gov. PALIN: You also said that Barack Obama was not ready to be commander-in-chief. And I know, again, that you opposed the move that he made to try to cut off funding for the troops, and I respect you for that. I don't know how you can defend that position now, but I know that you know, especially with your son in the National Guard, and I have great respect for your family also, and the honor that you show our military. Barack Obama, though, another story there. Anyone, I think, who can cut off funding for the troops after promising not to, that's another story.

Ms. GWEN IFILL (Managing Editor, "Washington Week;" Moderator, 2008 Vice Presidential Debate): Senator Biden?

Sen. BIDEN: Well, let's get straight who has been right and wrong. John McCain and Dick Cheney said, when I was saying we would not be greeted as liberators, we would not - this war would take a decade, not a day, not a week, not six months. We would not be out of there quickly. John McCain was saying the Sunnis and Shias got along with each other, without reading the history of the last 700 years. John McCain said there will be enough oil to pay for this. John McCain has been dead wrong. I love him. As my mother would say, God love him, but he's been dead wrong on the fundamental issues relating to the conduct of the war. Barack Obama has been right. There are the facts.

LIASSON: Biden used some version of that phrase - those are the facts - 19 times last night as he attempted to stress his superior knowledge of the issues and long experience on the national stage. The two also argued about Afghanistan and Pakistan and continued the long-running debate about whether Obama was wise or naive when he said he would sit down without preconditions for presidential-level talks with the leaders of Iran, Cuba and North Korea.

Gov. PALIN: Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong-Il, the Castro brothers, others who are dangerous dictators are ones that Barack Obama has said he would be willing to meet with without preconditions being met first. An issue like that taken up by a presidential candidate goes beyond naivete and goes beyond poor judgment. A statement that he made like that is downright dangerous.

LIASSON: Biden shot back that five secretaries of state said we should talk to our adversaries.

Sen. BIDEN: And look what President Bush did. After five years, he finally sent a high-ranking diplomat to meet with the highest ranking diplomats in Iran, in Europe, to try to work out an arrangement. Our allies are on that same page. And if we don't go the extra mile on diplomacy, what makes you think the allies are going to sit with us?

LIASSON: Throughout the debate, Palin was cheerful and confident. She always looked straight at the camera. A couple of times, she winked at the television audience, and she smiled when she attacked.

Gov. PALIN: Oh, man. It's so obvious that I am a Washington outsider and someone just not used to the way you guys operate, because here you voted for the war, and now you oppose the war. You're one who says, you know, as so many politicians do, I was for it before I was against it or vice versa. Americans are craving that straight talk and just want to know, hey, if you voted for it, tell us why you voted for it. And it was a war resolution. And you had supported John McCain's military strategies pretty adamantly until this race. And you had opposed very adamantly Barack Obama's military strategy, including cutting our funding for the troops, that attempt all through the primary, and I watched those debates. And so, you know, I remember what those were all about.

LIASSON: In the weeks since Sarah Palin burst on the scene with her convention speech, the political boost she gave to McCain has been fading. Last night was a chance to restore her image, and her performance should help her. But Joe Biden also avoided all the traps the Democrats had worried about. He was never condescending or disdainful, and he was careful to aim his fire not at Sarah Palin, but always at John McCain.

Sen. BIDEN: The issue is how different is John McCain's policy going to be than George Bush's. I haven't heard anything yet. I haven't heard how his policies can be different on Iran than George Bush's. I haven't heard how his policy is going to be different with Israel than George Bush's. I haven't heard how his policy in Afghanistan is going to be different than George Bush's. I haven't heard how his policy in Pakistan is going to be different than George Bush's. It may be but so far, it is the same as George Bush's, and you know where that policy has taken us.

LIASSON: This was Palin and Biden's only debate. Next week, John McCain and Barack Obama will go at it again in Nashville, Tennessee, where they will participate in a town-hall-style debate with questions from voters. Mara Liasson, NPR News, St. Louis, Missouri.

MONTAGNE: And if you'd like to hear the entire debate, you can download it at npr.org/election. And you can also add your comments.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is Morning Edition from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

United States & World Morning Edition
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.