Palin plays up Washington outsider image

Sarah Palin delivered a folksy, only occasionally tangled, verbal barrage in last night's widely anticipated vice presidential debate in St Louis relentlessly promoting herself as a gutsy Washington outsider more in tune with the American heartland than her Democratic opponent, Joe Biden.

In a high-octane, galloping exchange that never lagged in all of its 90 minutes, Mrs Palin, who came into the hall at Washington University the underdog, avoided any glaring spills and gaffes even if she frequently ducked questions and at times became repetitive as if rehearsing pre-memorised talking points.

"I think we need a little reality from Wasilla Main Street brought to Washington," she said, alluding to the Alaska town where she was once mayor. As she peppered her answers with down-home argot, there were as many winks to camera as there were hecks, dontchas and darn rights. Nor did she forget to mention Joe Six Pack and America's hockey mums.

Her relative assurance on the stage relieved Mr Biden of one problem – appearing to patronise or club his opponent. But the six-term Senator from Delaware was barely deflected by her whirlwind word-flow, firmly taking issue with her claims that she and John McCain could bring change to Washington and scorning the insistent branding of Mr McCain as a maverick.

"Maverick he is not," Mr Biden insisted. "He has not been a maverick on virtually anything that genuinely affect people as they sit around the kitchen table."

The clash was high entertainment that will have drawn record television ratings for a debate between second-players on presidential tickets. It may do little to alter the course of the race which recently has veered clearly in favour of the Democrats. For Ms Palin, though, it should stop the bleeding.

The difference between the two contenders was clear. While Mr Biden displayed an easy command of the issues, ranging from the economy, public health and foreign policy, he veered sometimes into tedious territory of endlessly recounting past votes cast by Mr McCain. Ms Palin often eschewed going into deep substance, showed off the populist touch that had already endeared her to conservative voters. She freely admitted that if she was not be responding to questions the way the moderator, Gwen Ifill, a television anchor for Public Broadcasting, or indeed Mr Biden would like.

"Biden won more points, but Palin won more hearts," concluded Mike McCurry, a former spokesman for President Bill Clinton.

Exchanges on the conduct of the war in Iraq carried an unusual poignancy – while Ms Palin's oldest son, Track, was recently deployed to served in the war, Mr Biden rushed home to Delaware last night to be there in time to bid farewell to his son, Beau, he leaves for Iraq today.

Most of the attacks launched in St Louis were less against each other than against the top of each other's tickets. Ms Palin said that Mr Obama had voted against funding the troops in Iraq and added that Mr Biden had crticised him for it. Mr Biden countered that Mr McCain had been "dead wrong on the fundamental issues relating to the conduct of the war."

In a red-blood moment, Ms Palin said that Mr Obama's insistence on a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq amounted to waving the "white flag of surrender". At one moment, however, Mrs Palin conceded there had been "huge blunders throughout this administration," possibly giving aides watching the debate on television sudden palpitations. It was a potential gift to Mr Biden that he did not take up.

On the economy, which has now become so central to the last four weeks of the race, Ms Palin scorned the notion of wealth distribution, charging that Mr Obama, with his promise to raise taxes on the rich, was seeking to reignite class warfare in America. It brought at tart response from Mr Biden, however. "Where I come from, it's called fairness, just simple fairness," he said.It was Mrs Palin's repeated reaching into the front-room chattiness, however, that may linger longest with viewers. She may have hit her best aw-shucks note when speaking of her brother in Alaska is a teacher, saying that his students would be getting "extra credits" for watching the debate.