Her Biggest Test: Sarah Palin Dropping in Polls as She Heads Into Debate With Joe Biden

It looks like Sarah's tanking—and it couldn't come at a worse time for her or John McCain.

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By Thomas M. DeFrank
Daily News Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON—It looks like Sarah's tanking—and it couldn't come at a worse time for her or John McCain.

Palin and Sen. Joe Biden debate at Washington University in St. Louis Thursday night as two new polls find much of America falling out of love with the Alaska governor.

They suggest her rattled and at times incoherent performance in recent television interviews has damaged her standing with some voters—and contributed to McCain's slump in the polls.

Two weeks ago, McCain's handlers believed Palin's downhome style, fresh face and underdog appeal would overcome her lack of experience and allow her to win the expectations game for the only vice presidential faceoff against the more knowledgeable and polished Biden.

"She's got the likability and poise, so even if her answers aren't perfect she'll be fine," a top McCain strategist confidently predicted last week.

Now, however, Palin has become a drag on McCain. A Pew poll reports 51% of Americans believe she's unqualified to be president, up sharply from 39% a month ago.

"There is a clear correlation between views of Palin's qualifications and support for McCain," Pew's Andrew Kohut said.

So Thursday night's highly anticipated contest is suddenly more urgent for the Republican ticket. A strong Palin showing could validate McCain's credibility in picking her and stop his political bleeding. Just staying on her feet for 90 minutes without a pratfall won't be enough to erase the public's doubts about her.

The old conventional wisdom had said tonight would be riskier for Biden, who has a history of verbal gaffes. Recently, for example, he said Franklin D. Roosevelt went on television to calm Americans' fears during the Great Depression. That meltdown began before FDR was president, and before TV.

"Biden has the bigger problem," a top GOP consultant said last week. "How is he going to go 90 minutes without being condescending or patronizing to her?"

Biden and his handlers understand the danger. "He knows he's got to be deferential and can't talk down to her," one of them told the Daily News. "She has more to prove than he does."

And just as Biden has to prove he can curb his loose tongue, Palin has to keep hers untied.

Republicans worry that Palin, who's been transferring talking points onto 5-by-7 index cards during prep sessions at McCain's home in Sedona, Ariz., has too much new information to absorb in too short a time.

At the McCain side's insistence, there's less opportunity for extended give-and-take than at last week's presidential debate. Tonight's format features 90-second answers, followed by two minutes of discussion.