“If she makes a gaffe, he underplays it,” one of the people prepping Biden for his vice presidential debate told me. “At most, he says, ‘I am not sure what Gov. Palin meant there.’”
There are three reasons for this. First, Biden does not want to look condescending. For the same reason, he plans on referring to Palin as “Gov. Palin” during the debate and never as “Sarah.” (He will sometimes refer to John McCain as “John,” however, because they have been senators together for many years.)
Second, Biden knows the press is going to pounce on any mistakes, and so he does not need to.
Third, and most important, Sarah Palin is not Biden’s true target.
“Joe Biden’s No. 1 job during the vice presidential debate is to keep the focus on the top of the ticket,” the Biden debate prepper told me. “He is going to keep the focus on John McCain.”
This is an arguable strategy. After all, McCain is the experienced one on the Republican ticket, the one whose credentials to be commander in chief from Day One are not in much question.
So why attack him instead of Palin, whose lack of readiness has been the subject of endless discussion as well as late-night comedy?
Because, at least in the past, Americans have not concentrated on the bottom of the ticket when it comes time to vote. They care about who the president is going to be, not who the vice president is going to be.
Dan Quayle had a disastrous debate against Lloyd Bentsen in 1988. Even before Quayle stumbled into the trap of comparing himself to John F. Kennedy, Quayle had enormous difficulty answering this basic question from Brit Hume: “Let us assume … the president is incapacitated for one reason or another, and you have to take the reins of power. When that moment came, what would be the first steps that you’d take and why?”
(Gratuitous advice to Biden and Palin: Have an answer ready for this one, just in case.)
Quayle had no answer, looked shellshocked and mumbled something about how he would “say a prayer for myself and for the country.” (He wouldn’t have been the only one.)
After the debate, Susan Estrich, Michael Dukakis’ campaign manager, came into the press filing center wearing a blue button that said “President Quayle?” Other Democrats wore more grisly red buttons that showed an EKG graph with the words “Quayle — A Heartbeat Away.”
Quayle was considered a joke after that debate. But he got to the White House. Americans decided that the top of the ticket — George H.W. Bush — was a lot more important than the bottom of the ticket.
But wait. Things are different now, aren’t they? We are engaged in shooting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our economy is teetering on the verge of collapse, and the top of the Republican ticket is 72 years old and a cancer survivor. So won’t Americans care more this time about whether Sarah Palin is really qualified to be president should she need to be? Won’t they care more this time about who the running mate is?
Probably not, says the Obama campaign. “Who a candidate chose as his running mate may be one factor in how a voter feels about the presidential candidate,” a top aide to Barack Obama told me. “But at the end of the day, voters go into the booth and vote for who they want as president.”
Biden is prepping hard. While he does not expect to make much of any gaffes Palin might commit, he is preparing his own lines of attack on her record.
But at the end of the debate, he will not judge his success on whether the audience believes Biden is a better choice than Palin. He wants the audience to believe Obama is a better choice than McCain.