ST. LOUIS — With winks, smiles and shrugs, Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin tried hard to charm voters in her first and only debate with Democratic opponent Joe Biden . Polls indicated she didn't win — but the absence of gaffes meant she didn't lose either.
The two sparred over taxes, energy policy and the Iraq war, with Palin trying to recover her image as a feisty reformer after recent fumbling TV interviews left the public wondering if she was up to a national job.
Biden, a seasoned U.S. senator, largely avoided attacking the Alaska governor directly and, instead, went after her running mate, John McCain, as promising more of the same failed policies as Republican President Bush.
"I think things went very well last night," Palin said Friday as she flew to Texas for a fundraiser. "It was energizing and I was happy to have had the opportunity."
It remained unclear whether the debate Thursday at Washington University would have a lasting impact on the campaigns of McCain and Democratic challenger Barack Obama.
McCain has been slipping in the polls during particularly trying times for Republicans, who were largely blamed for the House of Representatives' rejection of the Bush administration's $700 billion plan to rescue the teetering American financial system. Palin's shaky performances in recent television interviews also added to the pressure.
Two quick polls indicated that Biden fared better in viewers' minds than Palin in the debate. A CBS News/Knowledge Networks Poll found that 46 percent of uncommitted voters who watched the debate thought Biden won, with 21 percent siding with Palin. A CNN poll found respondents judging Biden the winner by a margin of 51 percent to 36 percent but calling Palin more likable by 54 percent to Biden's 36 percent.
Still, Palin couldn't be considered a loser, said Todd Harris, who worked on McCain's 2000 presidential campaign and advised actor-politician Fred Thompson's bid for the Republican nomination this year.
"Her performance had unlimited downside potential but probably has a limited upside," Harris said. "I doubt that this will change the dynamics of the race, but it certainly might help stop some of the bleeding."
The focus of both campaigns on Friday turned to the U.S. economy, which has been struggling with a financial crisis brought on by collapse of the housing market and an increasingly tight credit markets.
The House was expected to take up a $700 billion financial rescue package on Friday. It rejected the measure on Monday, sending global stock markets into a tailspin, but is reconsidering a revised proposal approved by the Senate on Wednesday. Among those voting "yes" were Sens. Obama, McCain and Biden.
Other political news of note
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While the politics of the healthcare law and immigration debate play out this week, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., are quietly working out the details of a possible two-year long budget agreement.
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Adding a sense of urgency Friday was the Labor Department's report that employers cut payrolls by 159,000 in September, the most in more than five years.
In a statement, McCain said the report confirmed what workers have known for months: "Our nation's economy is on the wrong track." The Arizona senator added, "America's middle class needs help from a government that is truly standing on their side and not in their way."
Obama pledged in a statement to rebuild the middle class and urged Congress to act.
"I also call on Congress to pass an immediate rescue plan for our middle-class that will provide tax relief, save 1 million jobs, and save our local communities from harmful budget cuts and painful tax increases," the Illinois senator said.
Obama was campaigning Friday in Pennsylvania, while McCain was holding a town-hall style meeting in Pueblo, Colorado.
In the debate, Palin repeatedly cast herself as a non-Washington politician and part of a "team of mavericks" ready to bring change to a country demanding it.
"Maverick he is not on the important, critical issues," Biden shot back, referring to McCain. And he said Obama was the true candidate of change.
Palin also accused Obama and Biden of waving "a white flag of surrender" in Iraq.
Biden responded that McCain had been "dead wrong" on Iraq and has not shown how his policies on the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan would be different from Bush's.
The clash over Iraq was the most personal, and pointed. Palin has a son serving in Iraq; Biden's son will deploy there soon.
Biden on Friday was to attend the deployment ceremony in Delaware for his son, Beau Biden, the Delaware attorney general, who is scheduled to fly to Iraq with his National Guard unit soon.
Palin charged Obama with voting against funding for U.S. troops in combat and chastised Biden for defending the move, "especially with your son in the National Guard." She criticized Obama for opposing the increase in U.S. troops in Iraq that is credited with helping reduce violence there.
Biden said McCain was "dead wrong" about Iraq from its 2003 beginning, and the United States was wasting $10 billion a month in that country while ignoring the real center of terrorism, Afghanistan and its mountainous shared border with Pakistan.
Palin also called Obama naive for saying he was willing to engage the leaders of Iran, North Korea and Cuba.
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