More on the Biden – Palin Debate – Pre-Analysis

Debates are not the same as interviews.  Sarah Palin may be asked to provide specifics to the questions addressed to her, but there is no guarantee that she’ll provide a single one.  In fact, it is pretty much assured that she won’t.

Katie Couric, Charles Gibson, a town hall audience member and even Sean Hannity have asked for specifics and I have yet to hear her answer one.  The simplest one that she sidestepped was the Couric question ‘what specific newspapers or magazines do you read?’ 

I don’t know if she couldn’t answer because she can not think of a single one or possibly her handlers told her never give an answer because every time you do, you stand to offend someone.  You see, if she had answered the New York Times, conservatives would have asked why she reads that liberal rag.  If she had answered Fox News, the progressives would have asked why she watches that NeoCon network.  If she said People, Us Magazine would have been upset. 

You don’t want to offend US Magazine or its readers.

When she is standing behind the lectern Thursday night, she can answer as vaguely as possible without any real challenge from debate moderator Gwen Ifill (PBS) or from Democratic Party challenger Joe Biden. 

After I concluded writing my debate pre-analysis (Read here), I decided to get opinions from others on this subject.  What I read was frightening, to say the least.

Andrew Halcro was an independent challenger for the 2006 Alaska governor race and has debated Palin during that campaign.  Here is some insight from Halcro.


What it’s like to debate Sarah Palin 

I know firsthand: She’s a master of the nonanswer.

By Andrew Halcro

When he faces off against Sarah Palin Thursday night, Joe Biden will have his hands full.

I should know. I’ve debated Governor Palin more than two dozen times. And she’s a master, not of facts, figures, or insightful policy recommendations, but at the fine art of the nonanswer, the glittering generality. Against such charms there is little Senator Biden, or anyone, can do.

On paper, of course, the debate appears to be a mismatch.

In 2000, Palin was the mayor of an Alaskan town of 5,500 people, while Biden was serving his 28th year as a United States senator. Her major public policy concern was building a local ice rink and sports center. His major public policy concern was the State Department’s decision to grant an export license to allow sales of heavy-lift helicopters to Turkey, during tense UN-sponsored Cyprus peace talks.

On paper, the difference in experience on both domestic and foreign policy is like the difference between shooting a bullet and throwing a bullet. Unfortunately for Biden, if recent history is an indicator, experience or a grasp of the issues won’t matter when it comes to debating Palin.

On April 17, 2006, Palin and I participated in a debate at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks on agriculture issues. The next day, the Fairbanks Daily News Miner published this excerpt:

“Andrew Halcro, a declared independent candidate from Anchorage, came armed with statistics on agricultural productivity. Sarah Palin, a Republican from Wasilla, said the Matanuska Valley provides a positive example for other communities interested in agriculture to study.”

On April 18, 2006, Palin and I sat together in a hotel coffee shop comparing campaign trail notes. As we talked about the debates, Palin made a comment that highlights the phenomenon that Biden is up against.

“Andrew, I watch you at these debates with no notes, no papers, and yet when asked questions, you spout off facts, figures, and policies, and I’m amazed. But then I look out into the audience and I ask myself, ‘Does any of this really matter?’ ” Palin said.

While policy wonks such as Biden might cringe, it seemed to me that Palin was simply vocalizing her strength without realizing it. During the campaign, Palin’s knowledge on public policy issues never matured – because it didn’t have to. Her ability to fill the debate halls with her presence and her gift of the glittering generality made it possible for her to rely on populism instead of policy.

Palin is a master of the nonanswer. She can turn a 60-second response to a query about her specific solutions to healthcare challenges into a folksy story about how she’s met people on the campaign trail who face healthcare challenges. All without uttering a word about her public-policy solutions to healthcare challenges.

In one debate, a moderator asked the candidates to name a bill the legislature had recently passed that we didn’t like. I named one. Democratic candidate Tony Knowles named one. But Sarah Palin instead used her allotted time to criticize the incumbent governor, Frank Murkowski. Asked to name a bill we did like, the same pattern emerged: Palin didn’t name a bill.

And when she does answer the actual question asked, she has a canny ability to connect with the audience on a personal level. For example, asked to name a major issue that had been ignored during the campaign, I discussed the health of local communities, Mr. Knowles talked about affordable healthcare, and Palin talked about … the need to protect hunting and fishing rights.

So what does that mean for Biden? With shorter question-and-answer times and limited interaction between the two, he should simply ignore Palin in a respectful manner on the stage and answer the questions as though he were alone. Any attempt to flex his public-policy knowledge and show Palin is not ready for prime time will inevitably cast him in the role of the bully.

On the other side of the stage, if Palin is to be successful, she needs to do what she does best: fill the room with her presence and stick to the scripted sound bites.

Andrew Halcro served two terms as a Republican member of the Alaska State House of Representatives. He ran for governor as an Independent in 2006, debating Sarah Palin more than two dozen times. He blogs at

One of the debates between Sarah Palin, Democrat Tony Knowles and Andrew Halcro was held on November 2, 2006.  You can watch that entire debate at KTOO-TV.  Once at that site, click on the Election Special link.

I recommend watching this debate (there have been shorter segments available on YouTube) and I hope that Joe Biden and his team would have reviewed them.  It doesn’t take long before you can see how she handles these general debate questions.  I think Halcro is right in that Biden could have his hands full.  Solely repeating the questions and regurgitating talking points while staring in the camera will cause the average American voter to be taken with her.  Pretty scary to say the least. 

To further this concern over the debate, the Stephen Braun and Tom Hamburger wrote a story that really better open up the Democrats eyes. 

In the story, ‘Underestimate Palin at your own risk, former rivals say’ we are given ample warning that supports Palin’s skills in a debate. 

The Subtitle sums up the entire article.  “With Thursday’s vice presidential debate approaching, ex-aides and opponents of the Alaska governor recall her skill at jabbing with a smile, even if she wasn’t always focused on learning the issues.”

Here are some highlights.

ANCHORAGE — When she appeared for a candidate’s forum in front of a room filled with unionized Alaskan electrical workers during her run for governor in early October 2006, Sarah Palin was woefully unprepared. When the union members grilled her on labor policy, Palin faltered.Afterward, a furious Palin cursed in anger and berated her staff, recalled two former senior campaign aides who blamed her unwillingness to bone up on workplace issues for the blunder.

But just a few weeks later, when Palin jousted with her two main rivals during critical pre-election debates, she was much more at ease. She distilled policy questions into simple answers and countered her opponents’ attacks with verbal thrusts delivered with a sunny smile.

When one moderator asked what she would do if one of her unmarried daughters became pregnant, Palin had a ready answer, defending her antiabortion stance and deflecting the question toward her male rivals: “I would choose life. And I am confident you will be asking my opponents these same scenarios?”

During Palin’s brief exposure to the high-stakes environment of political debates, she has unnerved both her handlers and her opponents. At times she has been handicapped by her lax approach to learning the nuances of policy and state issues, but she has also projected a Reaganesque ability to offer up pithy answers and charm on camera.

“The political landscape here is littered with people who have underestimated Sarah Palin,” said Eric Croft, a former state representative who ran for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2006 and appeared with Palin during several early forums.


. . .
Biden could face trouble, Alaskan political observers said, if he takes Palin too lightly. But he also has to take care not to be overly aggressive against a candidate who radiates telegenic appeal.
. . .
As she began her run for governor of Alaska, Palin repeatedly proved difficult to prep for a debate, recalled her two former political aides, who had pivotal roles during her campaign but declined to be identified because of their continuing involvement in Alaska politics.
. . .
“To her credit, she gave a lot of ‘I don’t knows,’ ” one former aide recalled. “But it was clear she didn’t start out with a great range of knowledge about Alaskan affairs.”
. . .
“If you can sit her down, she has a talent for listening to a policy presentation that is so boring it would bring tears to your eyes,” the aide said. “Then — boom — she will nail it down to its essence.”Palin often toted index cards when she walked out in front of the cameras, cribbing from them when the cameras were on her rivals. “She’d carry these cards with her like she was cramming for a test,” Halcro said.
. . .
By the final key televised debate in late October, Palin had grown used to the format, her aides and rivals recalled. Still using index cards, she was breezily confident in her back-and-forth with Halcro and former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles.

… Sometimes her remarks seemed glib, but she was usually poised and sometimes kicked back at her opponents and questioners when they took the offensive.

Larry Persily, a panelist questioner in the campaign’s final televised debate, said Palin flummoxed her rivals “like Muhammad Ali dancing around the ring.” She avoided statements and tough questions that could have impaled her and repeatedly stung her opponents. And Palin, a former sportscaster, was easily the most comfortable in front of the camera. “She knows television,” said Persily, who participated in other debates and has watched Palin closely for years. “She knows how to look at her interviewer.”

Palin saved her most devastating riposte for the final question of the debate, when Persily asked the three candidates whether they would hire their opponents for a state job.

Knowles and Halcro offered halting jokes. But when it was Palin’s turn, she pounced.

Smiling at Halcro, who recited reams of statistics by rote, Palin observed that the businessman “would make the most awesome statistician the state could ever look for.”

As the debate audience laughed, Palin pivoted to Knowles, who had owned an Anchorage restaurant. “Do they need a chef down in Juneau?” Palin asked, smiling as she twisted the verbal knife. “I know Mr. Knowles is really good at that.”

Two years on, Halcro and Knowles admit they are still baffled by how their mastery of policy and state issues was trumped by Palin’s breezy confidence and feel-good answers.

“When you try to prove she doesn’t know anything, you lose, because audiences are enraptured by her,” Halcro said. “And her biting comments give you a sense of how competitive she is. Anybody who doesn’t take her seriously does so at their peril.”



2 responses to “More on the Biden – Palin Debate – Pre-Analysis

  1. Why not question that the moderator, Gwen Ifill, of the upcoming Biden-Palin debate is pro-Obama. She wrote a book that praises Obama, obviously she will try her best to make Palin look bad in the debate Why couldn’t the moderator be more fair and bi-partisan?

    Why not make fun of Joe Biden, who thinks FDR was President in 1929, and thinks paying more taxes is patriotic?

  2. Why is the GOP bringing this up the day before the debate? The book was announced in July. In August, she was selected for the debate and agreed to by both campaigns.

    How do you know that the questions won’t be fair? Have you seen them already?

    I did discuss that Biden puts his foot in his mouth in part 1 of my analysis. This post brought in articles about Palin’s debate style since no one knows anything about her. I have now watched 2 gubernatorial debates with Palin. Based on both of them, she will surprise a lot of people.

    And do you always repeat what Rush Limbaugh and Fox News tell you?