Less than a half hour into last night's vice presidential debate, moderator Gwen Ifill asked Republican Sarah Palin and Democrat Joe Biden how, if elected, they'd scale back campaign promises given the country's economic turmoil.
Palin, 44, a smile spreading across her face, tipped her head and responded: "How long have I been at this? Like five weeks?"
Yes, like five weeks. Not enough time to make promises, she seemed to suggest. But long enough for the Republican governor of Alaska to have gone from a mystery woman with the Fargo-like accent to ascendant conservative star to a punch line for comics and potential drain on John McCain's campaign.
Last night, the most crucial of her political career, Palin managed to come out of a rocky couple of weeks—marked by stumbling interviews with CBS's Katie Couric—with a credible, confident, aphorism-peppered debate performance that harkened back to her bravura acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.
But it was Palin's misfortune that the often too-garrulous Biden was at his best. He stayed focused on bonding McCain to the Bush administration, contrasting the policies of his running mate Barack Obama with those of McCain—particularly on Iraq and healthcare, and successfully avoiding the minefield of cross talk with Palin by answering questions to Ifill directly. In one of his strongest moments of the night, he made the case that Palin, the mother of five and, as she reminded again last night, a "hockey mom," doesn't have a monopoly on family values.
"I understand what it's like to be a single parent," Biden said, visibly choking up as he referred obliquely to the great tragedy of his life: the death of his wife and young daughter, in a car accident, just before he was to be sworn in for his first Senate term at age 30. "I understand," he said. "I understand."
Last night, Palin, who filibustered through some answers and maneuvered even a direct question about bankruptcy law back to her favorite issue of energy, still gave comics some fodder. No one expects Tina Fey to hang up her Saturday Night Live Palin parody just yet.
But she appeared to have succeeded in stanching for now the flow of negative reports that, polls show, have raised serious questions about her readiness to serve. And, with the gaffe-free debate over, she gave the GOP campaign, buffeted by criticism over McCain's erratic response to the economic crisis, one less thing to worry about.
How her performance—and that of Biden, who in most post-debate polls and focus groups was the clear winner—could affect the final weeks of the campaign and the decision of independent voters is unclear. The spotlight has already shifted this morning to Capitol Hill and the bailout, and to how McCain and Obama will go about wrapping up votes in the handful of states that will decide this thing on Election Day, when Palin will have been at this thing for about 10 weeks.