Video: Biden: Need to help middle class

updated 9/18/2008 2:28:11 PM ET 2008-09-18T18:28:11

The way things are headed, it's possible that the presidential election, for the first time in almost a half-century, will be largely determined by a vice presidential nominee. But not the one you think.

Since Sarah Palin left the stage in St. Paul to raucous cheers from a revived Republican base, the race has turned into a three-headed monster -- a battle of Palin and John McCain versus Barack Obama. And polls show it's a dead heat. Meanwhile, the only candidate who remains largely undefined is Joe Biden, who has been stuck in an ironic flashback of his own failed bid for president, an earnest effort that was entirely overshadowed by a man-woman duo of celebrity candidates.

Biden's not the only one reliving the Democratic primary campaign. Obama is still struggling to explain how he would ease economic anxieties that have gotten much worse since the spring. And Hillary Rodham Clinton's strategy lives on in McCain; after spending three months trying to discredit Obama as inexperienced, he has morphed into a passionate fighter for working-class Americans, an opponent of deregulation and the "violation of a social contract between capitalism and the American citizen."

To be sure, Biden has done some morphing of his own. Introduced in Denver as Scranton's average Joe, who finds more in common with Amtrak porters than with most members of Congress, the senator now talks frequently about his "longtime friend John McCain." OK, fine, he's saying, I'm a Washington insider. But so is the so-called Maverick.

Biden has played many roles effectively; he can wax eloquently about Obama's economic agenda and how it would affect average Americans, and then launch into a blistering critique of how "dead wrong" the McCain-Palin ticket's plans would be for struggling workers. He'll speculate on how McCain's foreign policies would lead to a cold war with Russia and a "hot war" with Iran, and then pivot to discuss the sleepover his granddaughters had with Obama's daughters in Denver.

His poll numbers [PDF] have remained steady, which suggests he'll continue to play a prominent, if overshadowed, role on the trail. Meanwhile, don't be surprised to see Republicans dim Palin's spotlight over the next month. Since the GOP slowly began to lift the veil on her last week, the governor's ratings have started to dip.

Video: What a difference a week makes Her weaknesses on the trail were on full display Wednesday night in Grand Rapids, Mich., where she participated in her first town-hall meeting with McCain. Asked what specific skills she'd bring to the White House on foreign policy, she insisted only that she'd be ready: "I have that confidence," she said.

Perhaps realizing that "readiness" and "confidence" aren't widely recognized as "specific skills" on the global stage, she continued: "If you want specifics with specific policies or countries, you can go ahead and ask me. You can play 'stump the candidate' if you want to," she snapped. "But we are ready to serve."

That was Sarah Palin, folks, not Tina Fey.

On Tuesday, for the first time in the Diageo/Hotline tracking poll [PDF], more registered voters said Palin is unprepared to serve as president -- a new high of 49 percent. What's more, 35 percent of registered voters now say Palin is "very unprepared" to serve -- up from 28 percent who said so in the sample completed immediately after the GOP convention.

Likewise, since Palin's introduction in St. Paul, the proportion of registered voters who see Palin as a common politician (as opposed to a reform-minded maverick) has steadily increased. A majority (54 percent) still describe her as "a different kind of leader who offers a fresh, new perspective and inspires others." But an increasing number of voters describe Palin as "just another politician who offers no new ideas and engages in negative politics."

Palin's favorability ratings have encountered comparable erosion. Although her positive rating is now at 47 percent, her overall unfavorable ratings have jumped in a week from 24 percent to 36 percent. Over the same period, her unfavorable ratings have doubled among men and independents -- from 18 percent to 36 percent and from 15 percent to 30 percent, respectively. Palin's "strongly" unfavorable rating among independents has also doubled, to 16 percent. And while her favorable/unfavorable ratings have held relatively constant among Republicans, her numbers are plummeting among Democrats; she now scores just a 16 percent/66 percent among them, down from 22 percent/45 percent just after St. Paul.

Next stop: St. Louis on Oct. 2. The Biden-Palin debate should be interesting. If Biden can perform as well at Washington University as he has on the stump, he'll be on his way to playing a larger role in Obama's campaign than any running mate has in years.

Since Palin was chosen, conventional wisdom has insisted Biden faces a steep challenge in St. Louis, but in truth, it's Palin who faces the far steeper challenge.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.


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