Republican Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska, boosted her standing with women during Thursday night’s vice presidential debate, surprising critics and reassuring fans, according to an early survey of voter views.
Overall, Palin did better among women than among men, with greatest gains coming from Republican women relieved that the second female nominee in the nation’s history avoided mistakes and appeared confident and connected to ordinary voters. It may be too soon to determine whether Palin's performance boosted the campaign of her running mate John McCain, but all eyes were on the vice presidential candidate after weeks of intense scrutiny and shaky performances in televised interviews.
"I believe she stood up to the pressure," said Susan Watt, 52, a real estate broker from Eagle, Colo. "She speaks to me and she speaks for me and I think she did a good job."
Even women Democrats with low expectations conceded that Palin met the mark.
“As a woman, I just wanted her to stop embarrassing us,” said Susannah Nation, 32, a human resources manager in Kentfield, Calif. “I’ve got to say I was impressed. She did not change my vote and I will never agree with her, but she was a studied candidate.”
Only male Democrats viewed Palin less favorably after the debate than before, according to Mitchell McKinney, a University of Missouri-Columbia researcher whose past debate analysis has predicted national trends.
“In her debate performance, females overall found her more convincing or were more favorably inclined [than before],” said McKinney, who has been studying national debates since 1992. That year, for example, his early analysis predicted that independent candidate Ross Perot would divert significant support from George H.W. Bush.
This year, Mitchell and colleagues at 10 sites across the nation asked 500 voters to view Thursday’s debate and rate the candidates before and after on 100-point favorability scale. Overall, both Democrat Joseph Biden, a senator from Delaware, and Palin improved their impressions with voters during the 90-minute debate.
Overall, Biden’s favorability, already higher than Palin’s, rose by 26 percent, from 53 to 67 points. Palin’s, which started at 36 points and climbed to 41, rose by 14 percent.
Republican men ranked Palin high, raising her approval scores from 67 to 73. Only Democratic men, already displeased with Palin, became even more so, with scores falling by 21 percent, from 19 to 15.
With women, however, Palin’s approval climbed 11 percent, from 70 to 79 among Republicans, and by 20 percent, from 21 to 25 points among Democrats. That split mirrors obvious party divisions, Mitchell said, but it also shows that Palin held her own despite recent stumbles.
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“What I believe this is showing is that she exceeded expectations,” McKinney said. “Viewers were saying, ‘Wow, she didn’t fail; she didn’t embarrass herself.”
The survey’s findings were reflected by women across the country who found themselves riveted by the debate.
Low bar? Supporter bristles
Some Palin supporters took offense at the idea that the governor did well simply because the bar was set so low.
“She was very poised, very articulate and she seemed to say who she is,” said Rae Ann McNeilly, 51, a program manager in Chicago who is registered independent. “The media pokes fun at the folksy way she talks, but I think that means staying true to who you are.”
Others were more surprised at her competence.
“I was very pleased with Sarah Palin’s performance. I thought Joe Biden was going to eat her alive and then turn her inside out,” said Martha Reed, 50, a Republican who works as an internet media coordinator from Pittsburgh. “I think it was her stamina. She was able to maintain a really focused presentation.”
Still, many women who viewed the debate had mixed views of Palin’s performance, contending that she failed to answer straightforward questions and stuck too closely to an obviously rehearsed script.
“I think she rested on issues she was most comfortable with,” said Andrea Wagner, 33, a national sales manager for an online career search site. “I thought she was likable enough, charming and able to connect with middle class people. The lack of experience was still pretty obvious.”
Some women, however, recoiled at Palin’s demeanor, saying it undermined the seriousness of the position she seeks.
“I still don’t like that pandering to the folksiness: the winking, the dropping the Gs, the shout-outs to third graders,” said Shelley Worthen, 44, a Democrat who works as an architect in Morgan, Utah. “She didn’t completely bomb, but politically, I’m so opposite of what she stands for.”
Viewers in Palin’s hometown of Wasilla, Alaska, thought that Palin’s performance accurately reflected the positive qualities of the woman they know. Dianna Boucher, 50, who owns a mobile notary business in Wasilla, said recent media portrayals of Palin have been biased and inaccurate. She said the Sarah Palin on the stage Thursday was the woman she sees at the airport and in grocery stores.
“She sounded natural, just normal, like she’s taking charge,” Boucher said. “I think she did very well. I’m proud of her.”
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