Video: Palin, Biden set to face off

By Chief White House correspondent and political director
NBC News
updated 10/2/2008 3:22:50 PM ET 2008-10-02T19:22:50

Thursday night can't come soon enough for John McCain’s campaign.

Sure, there's a lot at stake for Sarah Palin, but anything that even remotely distracts the public from the current economic mess is a good thing for McCain.

Right now, the trajectory of this race doesn’t favor the GOP nominee.

McCain is trailing in practically every true battleground state, and now, he finds himself defending Republican turf that includes Indiana, Missouri and North Carolina.

There has been steady movement in Barack Obama's direction now for two weeks and the time left for McCain to throw a wrench into that momentum is dwindling.

That's why Thursday is so crucial for McCain.

It's an opportunity not just to prop up Palin's political standing, but to shift the debate back to being a referendum on Obama, rather than on George W. Bush.

If the debate goes as bad as for Palin as some Republicans privately fear, then this slow drift to Obama in the polls could turn into a tidal wave.

But if the history of this campaign is any guide, I suspect that we're going to see a surprise of some sort.

Frankly, we're about due for a momentum shift. After all, has either candidate been able to maintain momentum for longer than two weeks?

McCain can't afford to have another bad weekend going into his next showdown with Obama. He needs to start turning the tide back in his direction.

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As for the debate itself, it seems as if both candidates have been given an instruction to follow: Don't be your stereotype.

For Palin, that means she can’t come across as being behind on the basics.

Slideshow: Sarah Palin: Republican star for 2012? For Biden, that means that he can’t over-talk and get over-anxious to make a point.

Of course, all of this is easier said than done.

But there are subtle ways these stereotypes can be avoided. Biden will likely keep his answers short and his attacks directed at McCain and Bush. The less he talks, the more opportunity he will afford Palin to make a mistake.

As we've seen in these television news anchor interviews, Palin gets herself into trouble when she starts filibustering.

So what does this mean for Palin?

She should be relentless against Biden tonight. The more he’s put on the defensive, the more likely he’ll make a mistake.

Slideshow: A look at Biden For all the NASCAR-like hype this debate is getting, is it possible that this debate can be a game-changer?

If the economy is really what’s on the forefront of viewers' minds, is there anything Palin can say to reassure these folks that the GOP ticket will take care of the crisis?

This may not sound fair, but the burden is on McCain and Palin to prove they can fix America's economy.

And it’s because of two things: They share party membership with the current president, and there’s a generic belief that Democrats can handle the economy better than Republicans.

So, how will this debate be judged?

Will it be judged through the prism of Palin's ability to handle the spotlight or will it be judged by how both candidates present their economic cases to the American people?

Answer that question, and you'll be able to figure out how important (or not) this debate ends up being.

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