Can Palin Stop the Slide?

It’s not too often that the vice-presidential debates hold anywhere near the interest of the verbal sparring matches that take place between the main contenders in the presidential race. But as with pretty much everything else in this topsy-turvy, surprise filled election, the usual rules don’t apply. And it’s not just curiosity about vice presidential contender Sarah Palin that’s driving the interest. Her popularity helped give the Republican ticket a big jolt in the polls before she came back down to earth with a far shakier performance during a series of media interviews over the last couple of weeks. The race is also now at what could potentially be a critical turning point. With the financial crisis once more putting the economy and its troubles front and center—an issue that has long favored the Democrats— a series of recent polls show the race turning sharply in favor of Barack Obama and his running mate, Joe Biden.

So one key question as Biden and Palin mix it up tonight in St. Louis will be whether the Alaska governor can turn in a strong enough performance to stop the slide the Republican ticket has suffered.

The economy appears to be the main reason for the shift in the race. With less than five weeks to go before the election, a new CBS News-New York Times poll showed that Obama leads rival John McCain by 49% to 40%. Following the political conventions, the two were virtually tied. The economic crisis, and how each has responded to it, has been a key factor. In the CBS-NYT poll, 54% said they thought Obama had a plan for dealing with the economic crisis, while only 48% thought McCain did. Moreover, 47% disapproved of how the Arizona Senator was handling the current crisis, while 33% approved. For Obama, only 32% disapproved of his performance, while 43% approved of his handling of it.

“Obama is clearly now the leader in the race, and that is growing wider by the day,” says Brian Gardner, a Washington DC policy analyst for brokerage firm Keefe, Bruyette & Woods. He credits the “reemergence of the economy” for the Illinois Senator’s new strength. Daniel Clifton, the head of the Washington office of investment advisor Strategas Research Partners adds that the shift in the economic debate away from energy policy – which had benefitted McCain, particularly after he chose Palin—has also been a factor. “There’s been a big pivot in the electorate away from gas prices to questions of financial security; now it’s about ‘Is my money safe?’” Clifton says. “It’s not that Obama has done anything huge to win over voters. It’s that McCain has appeared clumsy and unsteady has the economic crisis has heated up.”

Palin’s performance also appears to be causing some of the slide. In a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, six of 10 voters say they don’t think she has the experience to be an effective president. One-third say they are less likely to vote for McCain as a result. Coming out of the conventions just one month ago, voters ranked Palin equally as highly as they rated Obama and McCain.

So what to expect tonight? For Palin, she’ll have to show a deeper understanding of the economic and foreign policy challenges facing the country than she has demonstrated in recent media interviews; the questions raised by those performances have largely been behind her own sliding approval ratings. She’ll likely go after the Democratic ticket by arguing they plan to aggressively raise taxes even as the economy tanks. As one long time Republican player who is now a lobbyist puts it, “It’s one of the only piercing bullets for them to play – they’ve got to make the case to the average voter ‘Here’s where you are economically now, and here’s how you’d be worse off if your taxes go up.’” Expect Palin to also portray Biden as being on the wrong side of many foreign policy issues, despite his many years of experience in the areas.

For Biden, the challenge is in some ways simpler, though it too is hardly without risk. He has to bring home how little knowledge and experience she has in the big issues facing the country at home and abroad, without coming off as pompous or patronizing. And most important for the Democratic ticket, he has to take care not to commit a gaffe that reverses their current momentum.

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