ST LOUIS // The Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Democrat rival Joe Biden will share the same stage in a debate tonight, but the spotlight will be on the untested Mrs Palin as she tries to ease doubts about whether she is up to the job.
The lone matchup of the vice presidential contenders before the Nov 4 election promises more than the usual drama, most of it supplied by Mrs Palin's debut in an unscripted format.
The encounter could draw a larger television audience than the 52 million who watched last week's first debate between the presidential candidates Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama. Mr McCain's surprise choice in August of the relatively unknown Mrs Palin as his No 2 rallied conservative support for the Republican ticket and turned the moose-hunting Alaska governor into a political celebrity.
But her lack of national experience and her hesitant performance in rare media interviews have raised doubts about her readiness and prompted criticism even from some prominent conservatives. Mrs Palin hopes a solid debate performance can halt Mr Obama's momentum and erase doubts about her ability to step into the top job if needed. Mr McCain, 72, would be the oldest president to begin a first term.
In a Washington Post/ABC News poll released today, 60 per cent of the voters surveyed said Mrs Palin did not have the experience to be president, up from 45 per cent in a similar survey a month ago. "I look forward to tomorrow night, getting to speak to Americans about the very, very, clear choice that they will have on November 4th," Mrs Palin told conservative talk show host Sean Hannity on his radio program.
Mrs McCain lashed out in a testy interview with the Des Moines Register editorial board in Iowa on Tuesday when asked about conservative qualms about Mrs Palin. "I haven't detected that, haven't detected that in the polls, haven't detected that among the base," he said, wishing "good luck" to any "Georgetown cocktail party person who calls himself a conservative and doesn't like Palin." Mr Biden, 65, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, faces his own set of challenges as he tries to rein in his tendency to make mistakes and talk too much. He will have to tread carefully in challenging Mrs Palin without appearing condescending or aggressive. The encounter follows last week's first presidential debate between Mr Obama and Mr McCain. Opinion polls judged Mr Obama the winner, and the Illinois senator has since solidified his lead in national polls and gained ground on Mr McCain in some crucial battleground states. A flurry of new surveys showed Mr Obama with significant leads in traditional battlegrounds like Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio, and building a solid edge in states like Virginia and Nevada where Democratic presidential contenders rarely do well. Mr Obama has picked up steam during the crisis on Wall Street over the last two weeks, with polls showing voters preferring his economic leadership. * Reuters