Both Sarah Palin and Joseph Biden did better than many people expected them to do in Thursday's vice presidential debate, but in the end it probably didn't change many minds. Biden looked like he could be president while Palin merely did as well as could be expected from someone who didn't belong on that stage.
Given enough coaching and a strategic decision not to answer many questions -- a strategy Palin announced early in the event -- any competent debater could have done as well. That's hardly a qualifier to be vice president on any ticket, let alone one on which the headliner is a 72-year-old with a history of cancer.
Palin was folksy and charming, but also frequently evasive and offering little more than talking points that have been drilled into her over the past few weeks. That she did so without devolving into the zombie she seemed to be in recent television interviews has offered a welcome measure of relief to her increasingly desperate supporters, but it's hard to see how she accomplished anything more than staunching the wounds her candidacy has opened.
Indeed, a post-debate poll by CBS News/Knowledge Networks showed that 46 percent of independent voters -- a crucial bloc in this election -- said Biden won the debate, compared to just 21 percent who said Palin won. Those same viewers also said their impression of both candidates improved, 55 percent for Palin and 53 percent for Biden. Ninety-eight percent of the viewers said Biden was knowledgeable compared to 66 percent for Palin (up from 43 percent before the debate).
For Biden, the key was that he restrained his tendency to say the wrong thing (and to say it too often) while delivering a focused, informed attack on John McCain, whom he repeatedly tied to the Bush administration. He was polite and forceful.
Palin's problem is that she can't undo the damage she has already done, because the questions asked by earlier interviewers revealed some disturbing truths. Palin couldn't name newspapers or magazines she reads or a Supreme Court decision she disagreed with other than Roe v. Wade, and said living next to Russia is important foreign policy experience. Her chatty debate performance may have obscured those defects, but it didn't change them.