The eyes of a nation will focus on Washington University in St Louis this Thursday for what could be a decisive night in the US presidential election. Despite briefly reinvigorating the Republican campaign, the selection of Sarah Palin as vice presidential running mate has looked an increasingly perilous decision in recent weeks following a flatfooted interview on CBS, an email scandal and several potentially damaging revelations about her faith and family.
The Republican ticket is also being hampered by its association with the incumbent regime, currently presiding over the worst economic downturn since the 1929 Wall Street crash. So much rides on Palin’s performance this week that last Friday’s bout between Obama and McCain in Mississippi, the first of three debates for the presidential candidates, felt like an undercard.
No knockout blows were landed in Ole Miss; however the live TV showdown between the vastly experienced Joe Biden and his increasingly shaky opposite number could be a more brutal affair. Should Palin stumble on Thursday, McCain, already behind in the polls, will find it hard to rally. Should she turn in a performance, the gap between McCain and Obama will suddenly seem very small. The White House has been won and lost at such events.
Honours were declared even after last week’s banal encounter between Obama and McCain, an event that was watched by 52 million American, 16 per cent fewer viewers than watched the Bush-Kerry contest four years earlier. Despite talking for 90 minutes, neither side drew blood, leaving the spin doctors behind the scenes to declare victory for their respective candidates.
The debate focused on foreign policy and security, and the growing economic crisis engulfing America. On the former, McCain played on his experience, painting his opponent as too green and untested for the role of Commander-in-Chief. Indeed, the senator’s war record is one of the few points of leverage for the GOP advisors masterminding the Republican campaign.
On the latter, Obama allied McCain with the policies of George W Bush, and the Republican commitment to free market fundamentals, both seen as culpable for America’s current financial predicament. Obama looked relaxed and urbane, almost detached at times. McCain looked jittery, ill at ease with the format, occasionally angry, despite a fixed grin.
Obama addressed his opponent as “John”, turning towards the senator to speak. McCain’s glare remained fixed on the adjudicator, referring only to his rival as Senator Obama. This wasn’t just Republicans versus Democrats; it was generation versus generation, as the young media-savvy lawyer took on the ageing war veteran in a battle of quips, badinage and sound bites.
Earlier in the day the debate looked in jeopardy when McCain proposed he remain in Washington to help construct a bailout bill for Wall Street. It proved political gamesmanship, as both took to the stage. McCain was quick to go on the offensive offering strong rhetoric on Vladimir Putin and a resurgent Russia: “I looked into his eyes and I saw three letters – KGB”. It was a sturdy stuff from the Arizona senator, sentiments that will sit well with vast swathes of the American electorate. It was also instructive. McCain is, after all, a product of the Cold War, a man with an almost absolute view of right and wrong forged in the POW camps of the Vietnam War. That experience now informs the framework of the 72-year-olds world view.
“We are winning in Iraq and we will come home with victory and with honour,” argued McCain. Obama countered suggesting that a bad war was not worth fighting.
“Senator Obama won’t admit that the Surge is working,” continued McCain.
“John seems to think the war started in 2007, not 2003,” countered Obama. The Iraq debate proved the highlight of the night.
Events on Wall Street have overshadowed security issues in recent weeks, yet most Americans agree that electing a strong and security-minded leader is paramount. It’s not hard to see why – an aggressive Russia, China’s dramatic growth, an Iraqi conflict into its fifth year, a prolonged conflict in Afghanistan, problems on the Pakistani border, sabre rattling from Iran, North Korea threatening to restart its nuclear programme and the ongoing issue of Islamic fanaticism, the followers of which see America as the architect-in-chief of an unholy world.
Such fears should play into the hands of the military veteran, yet Obama remains ahead in the polls, suggesting that doubts about his foreign policy credentials may have been assuaged. Yesterday’s collapse of the legislative package on Capitol Hill, shot down by a Republican majority, may also benefit the Democrats over the coming weeks, though Obama failed to capitalise on the current economic distress during the debate, embroiling himself instead in an argument about tax cuts.
“Senator Obama simply doesn’t get it,” was McCain’s oft repeated response to his opponent’s practical, even prosaic assessments during the contest.
It’s unlikely that Palin will adopt similar tactics when she faces Joe Biden on Thursday. The Democratic running-mate must tread carefully, though. Should he browbeat his inexperienced opponent too heavily he may come across as sexist and a bully. Yet the pressure remains markedly on Palin. Political commentators are already suggesting the Republicans need a “game-changer”, an event that shifts support in their favour before November 4th.
Sarah Palin was appointed to ostensibly provide just that. Should she fall on Thursday, the hockey mom’s selection may well have handed the game to the other side.