Hard to believe, but it’s only been a month since Senator John McCain selected Governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate. Her annointment on August 29th was the “game changer” Senator McCain’s campaign hoped for, unifying the GOP base behind his candidacy, strengthening his maverick image and shifting the conversation away from Senator Barack Obama’s successful Democratic convention. The question now that Senator McCain’s candidacy seems to be floundering is whether Governor Palin can save his campaign again.
Things aren’t going well for Senator McCain of late. His antics concerning Congress’ rescue of Wall Street is widely seen as the political grandstanding that it was — not a good thing when you’re running as the anti-politician. While neither candidate scored a lot of points during Friday night’s debate, the general impression is that Senator Obama either held his own or “won,” whatever that means — not a good thing when the primary topic was foreign policy, Senator McCain’s strong point.
Worse, Governor Palin, who burst onto the national stage with a spectacular convention speech has proven to be an embarrassment. Governor Palin’s interview with Katie Couric is widely regarded as a fiasco.
Her earlier interviews with a fawning Sean Hannity on Fox News and her initial foray in the public on ABC were not a lot a better. That the McCain campaign has kept Governor Palin in a reporter-free bubble for most of the month since her selection is both historic (and not in a good way) and insulting, both to her and the voters. The cumulative effect is that even conservative Republicans, including those who once supported her like Kathleen Parker of the National Review, are questioning whether Governor Palin should withdraw from the ticket for the “good of the party.”
Governor Palin’sproblems extend beyond poor media performances, however. She’s an anti-pork barrell politician who has requested more earmarks for her state on a per capita basis than any other Governor in the nation. Her record as Mayor and Governor includes a history of controversial personnel dismissals. And most recently, it appears the Mayor Palin used her position to obtain a zoning variance on the home she was selling. In just one month Governor Palin has gone from being her party’s savior and a national celebrity to being an election embarrassment and a national punch line.
Yet, there’s a potential new game changer coming up and the hero looks mighty familiar — it’s Governor Sarah Palin. Her opportunity to save the McCain campaign (again) comes on October 2nd when she will debate the Democratic Vice Presidential nominee, Senator Joe Biden. The results of that encounter could change the course of the campaign.
All Governor Palin has to do in the debate is hold her own. She doesn’t have to win. In fact, her previous dismal performances in unscripted settings has set the bar so low that merely showing up will count in her favor.
As the Obama campaign will remind us all again and again over the next few days, Governor Palin received generally high marks for her performance debates in previous campaigns. But those were for Governor and Leiutenent Governor of Alaska. The issues were simpler, narrower and provincial. The October 2nd debate is between two candidates for the Vice President of the United States. Governor Palin needs to demonstrate that were something to happen to a President McCain, she could lead the free world.
Yet to win the debate Governor Palin doesn’t have to prove she’s a domestic policy wonk. She just has to avoid embarassing gaffes. She doesn’t have to prove a master of foreign affairs, she just needs to show she understands America’s role in the world and supports Senator McCain’s approach to playing that role. She doesn’t need to prove she can save the nation’s economy, she just needs to prove her election won’t hurt it.
Governor Palin is more than capable of achieving these minimal goals. Andif she does, the press (and paid media) will tout her performance as a major victory signaling an extraordinary reversal of the campaign’s dynamics as momentum shifts to the Republican’s advantage.
In other words, an acceptable performance by Governor Palin in the October 2nd debate will save Senator McCain’s campaign yet gain, and this time irreversibly — or at least until October 7th when Senator McCain and Senator Obama debate again.