"Live from St. Louis, it's Thursday night!"
Gov. Sarah Palin isn't likely to open the debate that way, but the public could be excused if they expected her to. After all, in the last week we have seen more of Tina Fey's "Saturday Night Live" imitation of Sarah Palin than we have of the Governor herself. That will finally change, when Gov. Palin steps out on the big stage and debates Sen. Joe Biden.What must Gov. Palin do to make Americans forget Fey's send-up and demonstrate she is ready to lead? What must Sen. Biden do to avoid gaffes of his own and win the debate, as he is expected to?The short answers: Gov. Palin needs to demonstrate a real understanding of complex issues. Simple talking points won't cut it. She needs to make clear she grasps the difficult policy challenges that the next administration will confront. if she doesn't the debate will quickly turn into her own version of Thursday Night Live.
Sen. Biden's burden is the opposite. We all know he understands the issues. Instead he has to connect with Americans, making the case against JohnMcCain without condescending to Gov. Palin and angering female voters. (He will not, for instance, be calling her "Sarah")Gov. Palin's debut on the public stage was very strong, especially her convention speech. Americans found her biography appealing and liked what they heard about her tenure as Governor. Most importantly, they related to her and concluded she understood them.Since then, as style has given way to substance, it's been all downhill. Her media interviews have been lackluster at best, embarrassing at worst, raising serious questions about her ability to step in as President if tragedy were to strike Sen. McCain. She is at risk of becoming a permanent caricature.Even conservatives have begun raising doubts about her. As a result the McCain campaign has sequestered her in preparation for the big night.To have a chance, Gov. Palin must first do two things: Demonstrate that she is ready to be a heartbeat away from the Presidency and aggressively make the case against Barack Obama. Neither will be easy: She will have to demonstrate a facility with issues that she has thus far been lacking, and will have to attack Sen. Obama without invoking the issue of experience, since it's not exactly a strong suit of hers either.If Gov. Palin clears those two hurdles, passing a third would score the trifecta: Getting under Sen. Biden's skin and forcing him to act obnoxiously towards her.For his part, Sen. Biden doesn't need to prove he is ready to step in as President - voters don't have any real doubts about that. His challenge is to resist taking Palin's bait. Sen. Biden is too smart to appear angry with Gov. Palin - and, as he has said repeatedly, he's comfortable debating strong women, including my former boss Hillary Clinton. So he is unlikely to charge her podium waving and yelling at her like Rick Lazio did to Sen. Clinton in 2000.He will need to work harder to avoid eye rolling and condescension when Gov. Palin claims geographic proximity to Russia as a foreign policy credential. He will have to let the public make up its own mind about her performance. Instead, he should train his fire on McCain - remembering that his goal isn't to disqualify Sarah Palin (she may welldo that on her own) but to make the case against a McCain presidency.Both should be ready with some self-deprecating humor. If Gov. Palin is asked about all the jokes at her expense she can say: "Well, you should see my imitation of Tina Fey." Joe Biden will no doubt be prepared with a quip about his own verbosity.Perhaps most importantly overall, they both need to explain the economic crisis gripping America and what their ticket would do in the White House to solve it. Gov. Palin's explanation of the crisis in her interview with Katie Couric was nearly as painful as the meltdown itself. She needs to redeem herself. Sen. Biden needs to avoid Senate-speak and break the problem and the solution down for average voters.Americans are hungering for leadership in these very tough times. So far they have gotten it from Barack Obama. Whoever succeeds in providing it tonight will have gone a long way towards winning this pivotal debate. Here's betting that it's Sen. Biden -- both on the merits of the case and the ability to deliver it.
Howard Wolfson also blogs at GothamAcme.com