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Vice Presidential Debate

October 3, 2008

St Louis, MO – As Democrat Joe Biden battled Republican Sarah Palin Thursday night at Washington University in the only Vice-Presidential debate, many St Louis residents watched the face-off from the comfort of their living rooms, at a variety of private parties, and at a public viewing organized by small liberal arts college Webster University in the nearby town of Webster Groves.

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A crowd of about one hundred students, alumni, and staff congregated at Webster student center.

Former Missouri Governor Bob Holden, a Democrat who is now the director of the college’s public affairs forum, organized a free “watch party”  open to the public, with a giant flat screen TV, pizza and soda.

In the hours leading to the debate, most people expressed little faith in Governor Palin’s ability to engage in a serious discussion and expected a dreadful performance. At the same time, many were worried that Senator Biden would come across condescending and professorial.

Arthur Banks, a fifty-three year-old former restaurant worker now on disability, stated: “I know Palin will make a lot of mistakes tonight.” Mr. Banks, who will vote for Barack Obama because he is afraid that John McCain will cut entitlements, had watched Gov. Palin’s interview with CBS Katie Couric and was prepared for the worst.

A group of “neighborhood moms against Sarah Palin,” shared similar pessimistic views: “I think Palin will stay away from answering the questions, will relentlessly attack Biden, and will try to divert people’s attention from her lack of knowledge,” commented Sue Hyde. These women were also concerned that Sen. Biden could stumble, if he ever looked like he was patronizing Sarah Palin: “I’m really glad that the moderator is a woman – Gwen Ifill of PBS – because it will give Palin less ground to complain about being treated unfairly,” Jacquelin Bauder maintained.

republicanwomenforobamaAfter the debate was over however, most people agreed that none of what they had feared came true. Sarah Palin looked more confident than in her interviews with Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson, and Joe Biden focused exclusively on attacking John McCain’s policies, never engaging the Governor of Alaska directly or taking on her personal positions.

At Webster University, the audience watched the debate intently and participated with laughter, applauses and booing. Almost exclusively Democrats, they often followed the hints from Joe Biden’s facial expressions in deciding when and how loud to laugh at comments made by Sarah Palin.

According to the majority, the debate turned out better than anticipated, both candidates performed above expectations and the discussion was more interesting and substantive than the first Presidential debate between Senators McCain and Obama.

While still disliking Governor Palin, many in the audience thought that she did a good job. “I think both Biden and Palin were able to put a few key points in,” said Colette Cummings, an employee at Webster, “Biden spoke well on the economy and Palin stressed energy.” Ms. Cummings is an Obama supporter and disagrees with Gov. Palin’s view on same-sex marriage.

Susan Napoleon was impressed by the smooth flow of the debate: “There really were no hiccups and pregnant pauses and they both appeared confident, well-spoken and knowledgeable.” Ms. Napoleon, who is the coordinator of the Dean’s Office at the School of Communication, will vote for Obama although she says she doesn’t trust him.

Thursday night’s debate helped her learning more about Obama’s running mate Joe Biden: “I thought he was a hot head and instead he was very confident with his viewpoint and just genuinely himself.” As for Sarah Palin, Ms. Napoleon agreed with the assessment that she performed above expectations: “She was very consistent with the image she was trying to portray as the Governor of Alaska,” Ms. Napoleon commented.

Although in her opinion Gov. Palin did not fully succeed, this was her way of trying to respond to the criticism that she is not qualified for the vice-presidency.

“I’m glad I watched the debated,” stated Kara Beckman, “it confirmed that I’m making the right choice.” A senior at Webster, Ms. Beckman will vote for Obama because he “understands the average American.” Ms. Beckman was pleased with Sen. Biden’s performance because he used facts and numbers to back his statements, whereas Gov. Palin “was just talk.” Ms. Beckman’s fellow student and friend Andrea Hale complained that Sarah Palin “dodged the questions,” and kept repeating the same campaign lines over and over again.

Ismaeel Snipes, also a student at Webster, will vote for Barack Obama because he thinks Obama’s economic plan is better than thosepoorpeopleinindianeedyourjobJohn McCain’s, because Obama is “truly in touch with 21st Century foreign policy,” and because Sen. McCain supports President Bush’s policies. Nevertheless, Mr. Snipes is a fan of Sarah Palin: “I like her energy and her personal values,” he claimed. In Mr. Snipes’ opinion, Gov. Palin held her own throughout the debate and performed much better than he thought. Mr. Snipes was also extremely pleased with Joe Biden’s act: “He was never condescending, he was respectful, and yet he always held his ground and was Presidential. And he even became emotional,” he says referring to the moment when Joe Biden shed a few sincere tears talking about the car accident that, in 1972, killed his first wife and his thirteen month-old baby girl and gravely injured his two sons.

Almost unanimously people who watched the debate at Webster agreed that their positive assessment of Gov. Palin’s performance was partially due to the fact that expectations had been set very low, particularly by last week’s interview with Katie Couric. Not surprisingly, the only person who thought Gov. Palin had done a worse job was senior Kara Beckman and she had not seen the Governor on CBS.

As a conclusion, most viewers shared a positive evaluation of the whole of the debate, thought that Gov. Palin did a better job than anticipated but, in the end, declared Joe Biden the winner. A poll conducted among CNN viewers appears to confirm these reactions: 84% of viewers felt Gov. Palin outperformed herself, while still feeling that Sen. Biden did a better job overall.  51% to 36% thought he won the debate.

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism

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