Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin accused the Democratic ticket of flying “the white flag of surrender” in Iraq, seeking to drive a wedge Thursday night between Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and his running mate, Joe Biden.
Facing voters for the first time in an unscripted setting in the only vice presidential debate, Palin, the governor of Alaska, recalled that during the Democratic primary campaign, Biden criticized Obama for voting against a bill that would have boosted funding for U.S. troops.
Biden, a senator from Delaware, claimed that the Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, also voted against the troop funding bill because it included a timetable to withdraw U.S. troops. He said he had no differences with Obama on the war.
Both candidates stumbled on some of their facts. McCain, in fact, did not vote on the bill, while Palin did not mention that Obama has supported all but that one Iraq funding measure.
Biden, who was under pressure not to seem patronizing or dismissive of his opponent, did not respond to two sharp attacks from Palin on Iraq.
First she criticized him for supporting Obama’s position votes, “especially with your son in the National Guard.”
Biden’s son Beau is scheduled to fly to Iraq with his National Guard unit Friday. Palin did not mention that she also has a young son who is in Iraq with the Alaska National Guard.
And Biden remained silent when Palin accused him of flipflopping on support for the war.
“It’s so obvious that I’m a Washington outsider and someone who’s just not used to the ways you guys operate, because you voted for the war and then you voted against it,” she said apparently referring to Biden’s support for the resolution authorizing the original 2003 invasion and his later votes to place restrictions on President Bush’s policies.
Palin blames regulatory failure for bank crisis
Interest was intense in the debate at Washington University in St. Louis, with people posting offers on Craigslist of $1,000 for a ticket to see whether Palin could find a way to sway voters who have doubts about her readiness for a national job. An Associated Press-Gfk poll released Wednesday found that just 25 percent of likely voters believed Palin, 44, had the right experience to be president.
Early in the debate, Palin appeared to diverge from one of McCain’s long-stated policies by blaming a failure of regulatory oversight for the financial crisis gripping Wall Street.
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“The federal government has not provided the sound oversight” needed to protect individual investors and small business owners, Palin said.
Last month, as debate grew on legislation to bail out collapsing investment banks, McCain said he still supported the 1999 law that deregulated relations between investment banks and commercial banks.
In his answer on the financial collapse, Biden — who also voted for the 1999 bill — blamed “the economic policies of the last eight years,” calling them “the worst economic policies we’ve ever had.”
Recalling McCain’s statement that U.S. economic fundamentals were strong, Biden added: “It does point out he’s out of touch.”
Palin looks to reverse perceptions
McCain’s campaign had kept Palin on a very short leash, limiting her exposure to questions from reporters. But Palin was direct, crisp and assured, swiftly turning moderator Gwen Ifill’s questions to the topic she wanted to address and directing her answers to the television cameras.
“I want to talk about energy,” she said at one point, deftly diverting the discussion from tax policy.
Palin blamed Obama for voting for the 2005 energy bill, which included large tax breaks for oil exploration. Palin, who was a member of Alaska’s oil and energy regulatory board at the time, complained that she had to deal with the fallout.
Asserting that Obama was now campaigning against the oil companies, she said, “The nice thing of running with John McCain is he doesn’t tell one group one thing and tell another group another thing.”
Biden countered that Obama voted against the tax breaks. Once they were added to the bill anyway, he backed the overall legislation because of its funding for alternative energy technologies.
Biden warned to be ready for Palin
For Biden, 65, a six-term veteran of the Senate, the challenge was not to appear patronizing to his much less experienced opponent, campaign aides said. Biden also has been known to misspeak, including recently when he mangled history during an interview.
“I know there will be a ‘gaffe watch’ tonight,” said David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager.
Biden rarely addressed Palin, directing his answers to Ifill. Linda Douglass, a senior adviser to the Obama campaign, said Biden had no intention of competing with Palin on charm.
“He’s going to be focused on voters tonight,” Douglass said in an interview on MSNBC’s “Hardball.” “This is going to be an opportunity for him to explain to voters ... which of these tickets is going to do something for their lives.”
Biden chose not to point out that Palin botched the name of the commanding U.S. general in Afghanistan, David McKiernan — Palin called him “McClellan” at least twice. And he chose not to criticize Palin’s contention that her two years of experience as governor of Alaska meant she was better qualified for national office than Obama.
Instead, Biden stuffed his answers with facts and figures, implicitly drawing attention to what Democrats see as his command of the issues.
For example, explaining why he believed global warming was a manmade phenomenon, Biden said:
“Now, let’s look at the facts. We have 3 percent of the world's oil reserves. We consume 25 percent of the oil in the world. John McCain has voted 20 times in the last decade and a half against funding alternative energy sources, clean energy sources, wind, solar, biofuels. ... China is building one to three new coal-fired plants burning dirty coal per week.”
Clash over role of vice president
Biden did, however, jump on one answer by Palin, who was asked about Vice President Dick Cheney’s contention that the vice president was a “free agent” unfettered by laws governing either the legislative or executive branches.
Palin did not reply directly, saying instead that the Constitution was “flexible,” allowing a McCain-Palin administration to “do whatever we have to do to administer very appropriately the plans for this nation.”
Biden responded heatedly that “the Constitution is very clear.” Under Article I, the vice president is part of the executive branch, he said.
Both sides quickly claimed victory — Palin staffers were arguing for their candidate even before the debate was over.
Jill Hazelbaker, McCain’s communications director, claimed that Palin had put Biden “on defense on energy, foreign policy, taxes and the definition of change.”
“Governor Palin proved beyond any doubt that she is ready to lead as vice president of the United States,” Hazelbaker said.
Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager, said Biden “won a clear victory” by making “a passionate case for change from the disastrous economic and foreign policies of the last eight years.”
“Joe Biden spoke clearly and strongly about Barack Obama’s plan for a tax cut for the middle class, health care that is affordable, and an end to the war in Iraq,” Plouffe said.
Carrie Dann, Courtney Kube, Domenico Montanaro, Mark Murray and Andrea Mitchell of NBC News contributed to this report.
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