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Palin faces her biggest challenge

As Sarah Palin meets her opponent Joe Biden in the first and only vice presidential debate this evening she will be watched by an increasingly sceptical audience. The financial crisis, fears about the economy, anger at the Wall Street bailout plan and his choice for running mate pose dangers for the McCain campaign. Meanwhile, Barack Obama is building widening leads in battleground states of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

"In just a month, Sarah Palin has gone from being the darling of the GOP to a major question mark hanging over John McCain's candidacy at a critical moment in the presidential campaign," The Christian Science Monitor reported. "The appealing, reform-minded governor of Alaska, whose surprise selection as Senator McCain's running mate electrified Republicans at their convention last month, now faces questions from prominent conservatives over whether she's up to being a potential president - especially at a time of international financial turmoil. All eyes will be on her Thursday night when she debates Democratic vice presidential nominee Joseph Biden, a veteran senator from Delaware. "After some rough TV interviews and dead-on parodies of Palin on [the NBC comedy show] Saturday Night Live that have reinforced the questions, she risks becoming 2008's Dan Quayle - the young Indiana senator plucked from obscurity for the GOP's 1988 ticket, who never overcame early stumbles and a light-weight image. Mr Quayle did not prevent the top of the ticket, George HW Bush, from becoming president. But the times are different: The bad economy, unpopular wars, and an unpopular president all slant the playing field toward the Democrats this year. "One by one, conservative columnists such as David Frum, David Brooks, and Kathleen Parker have come out against Palin, calling her in effect not ready for prime time. Among voters, polls show that initial enthusiasm for Palin has slipped, though the overall race remains competitive." Politico reported: "After delivering halting, unsteady performances in recent interviews with ABC's Charlie Gibson and CBS's Katie Couric, expectations are low for Alaska Gov Sarah Palin in Thursday's vice presidential debate in St. Louis. "Yet a review of Palin's experience during her 2006 campaign for governor, when she engaged in a long series of debates with her opponents, suggests she is a more formidable adversary than is widely thought." Andrew Halcro, a former Alaska state representative and gubenatorial candidate, said: "When he faces off against Sarah Palin Thursday night, Joe Biden will have his hands full. "I should know. I've debated Governor Palin more than two dozen times. And she's a master, not of facts, figures, or insightful policy recommendations, but at the fine art of the nonanswer, the glittering generality. Against such charms there is little Senator Biden, or anyone, can do." The Wall Street Journal reported: "Since her selection nearly a month ago, the 44-year-old governor has excited the party's conservative base with huge crowds and newfound fund raising. She remains popular in many areas, and last week drew 60,000 people to an event near Orlando, Florida. "But in recent days, Gov Palin flubbed quasi-mock debates in New York City and Philadelphia, some operatives said. Finger-pointing began, and then intensified after her faltering interview with CBS anchorwoman Katie Couric. However, she performed better when she took questions from the press after touring Ground Zero and remarked about her parents' visit there after the Sept 11, 2001, attacks. "Her performance also sparked negative responses from some conservative pundits, and she has slipped in some polls. Last week, nearly half the respondents in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll said she is unqualified to be president, while one in three said they were 'not at all' comfortable with the idea of Gov Palin as vice president, up five points from a poll in early September." The latest Pew poll said: "opinions about Sarah Palin have become increasingly negative, with a majority of the public (51 per cent) now saying that the Alaska governor is not qualified to become president if necessary; just 37 per cent say she is qualified to serve as president. That represents a reversal of opinion since early September, shortly after the GOP convention. At that time, 52 per cent said Palin was qualified to step in as president, if necessary." Meanwhile, Politico reported: "John McCain said Wednesday that he has turned to Alaska Gov Sarah Palin for advice on foreign policy issues 'many times in the past.' " 'She has the world view that I have and is very highly qualified and very knowledgeable,' McCain said during an interview on NPR. " 'I've turned to her for advice many times in the past, I can't imagine turning to Senator [Barack] Obama or Senator [Joe] Biden because they've been wrong,' the Arizona senator said of his running mate. 'I certainly wouldn't turn to them, and I've already turned to Governor Palin particularly on energy issues and I've appreciated her background and knowledge on that and many other issues.' "McCain said his running mate's energy experience 'extends to a wide variety of issues' including 'her world view of the threats we face from radical Islamic extremism.' " In The New York Times, Adam Nagourney looked back at the electoral impact of vice-presidential debates. "One of the best-remembered moments from a presidential or vice-presidential debate was the night Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, a Democratic vice-presidential candidate, knocked back Senator Dan Quayle of Indiana when Mr Quayle compared himself to John F Kennedy. ('Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine,' Mr Bentsen said. 'Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.') Rarely has an exchange been shown so often, providing endless ridicule of Mr Quayle. "Not that it mattered. George W Bush, who had chosen Mr Quayle as his running-mate, convincingly defeated Michael S Dukakis to win the White House in 1988. "All of which is a word of caution as the political world turns its attention to St Louis and the debate Thursday night between Gov Sarah Palin, the Alaska Republican, and Senator Joseph R Biden Jr, the Delaware Democrat. Given the novelistic trajectory of Ms Palin's candidacy - not to mention the challenges to her qualifications coming from across the political spectrum - this debate is already being billed as an event that has the power to turn the tide of the presidential campaign. "In truth, the political potency of this 90-minute debate is questionable. That is a reflection of history - vice-presidential debates, as the late Mr Bentsen certainly learned, tend not be decisive. But more than that, there are so many unusual things about the contest between Ms Palin and Mr Biden that the debate could just as possibly be another forgotten burst in a campaign that has been filled with such moments." Turning to the impact of issues outside the direct control of either of the presidential campaigns, Timothy Noah wrote in Slate: "The Republican-led defeat of President Bush's Wall Street bailout plan caused an immediate financial catastrophe: The stock market fell an unprecedented 777.68 points, wiping out, by one estimate, $1.2 trillion in wealth. But the greater and more lasting damage may be to the Republican Party itself. "Percentagewise, the Sept 29 crash was one-third the size of Black Monday, the stock-market crash of Oct 19, 1987. As I write, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has risen more than halfway back up (though stock prices remain volatile). It's still possible to believe that the economy will return to normal in a year or two. For Republicans, though, the events of Sept 29 could well be remembered as the start of a decadeslong exile from power - much as Democrats remember Nov 4, 1980." Time magazine reported: "Propelled by concerns over the financial crisis and a return of support from female voters, Barack Obama has opened a formidable 7-point lead over John McCain, reaching the 50 per cent threshold among likely voters for the first time in the general campaign for President, according to a new Time poll. "Obama now leads McCain 50 per cent to 43 per cent overall, up from 46 per cent to 41 per cent before the parties' conventions a month ago. Obama's support is not just broader but sturdier; 23 per cent of McCain supporters said they might change their mind, while only 15 per cent of Obama's said they could be persuaded to switch. "Among the poll's most dramatic findings: McCain is losing female voters faster than Sarah Palin attracted them after the Republican National Convention. Obama leads McCain by 17 points with women, 55 per cent to 38 per cent. Before the conventions, women preferred Obama by a margin of 10 points, 49 per cent to 39 per cent. After McCain picked Palin as his running mate, the gap narrowed to a virtual tie, with Obama holding a 1-point margin, 48 per cent to 47 per cent." AFP reported: "Obama is building widening leads in battlegrounds Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, in new polls released Wednesday in the trio of states that could be the key to victory on November 4. "The surveys reveal new momentum for the Illinois senator against Republican John McCain, as the rivals dash back to Washington to vote on a $700 billion Wall Street bailout package. "The Quinnipiac University polls suggest Obama won Friday's presidential debate and that McCain's vice presidential running mate Sarah Palin is suffering from sliding popularity, after a stunning initial impact on the race. "They also find that voters trust Obama more to handle the financial crisis rocking the US economy, and he seems to be convincing Americans he is ready to be president.

pwoodward@thenational.ae

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