St. Louis, Missouri: Full of smiles and even managing a wink or two, Republican Sarah Palin strode neatly through a potential minefield Thursday, dodging the hardball questions in the vice presidential debate.
While her Democratic rival Joseph Biden adopted a somber, measured approach, Palin was energetic and upbeat as she bounced onto the stage at the Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri in her black high heels.
“Nice to meet you. Hey, can I call you Joe?” Palin said, in a comment picked up by microphones as she shook hands with the tall, white-haired senator who she was meeting for the first time.
In a folksy, down-to-earth manner, the first-term Alaska governor, facing mounting questions about her credentials for a White House post, repeatedly veered away from the questions posed by moderator Gwen Ifill.
But what she lacked in substance, the moose-hunting, mother-of-five sought to make up for with her engaging personality.
In feisty attacks on Biden, 65, and Democratic White House hopeful, Barack Obama, she trotted out soundbites well tested on the campaign trail and honed in days of training at the Arizona ranch of Republican presidential hopeful John McCain.
Peppering her answers with “darn right”, “you betcha” and “heck”, Palin, 44, painted herself as an average hockey mom who understood the concerns of ordinary people sitting around their kitchen tables.
And she was unapologetic for seeking to steer the debate her way whenever she didn’t want to answer Ifill’s questions.
“I may not answer the question the way you want to hear, but I’ll talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record also,” she said.
A series of stumbling Palin interviews had been widely ridiculed in recent days and even led to calls from Republicans for her to step down from the ticket.
“Sarah Palin exceeded expectations, but these expectations were so low,” Shawn Parry-Giles, a professor in communications at the University of Maryland, told AFP.
“Lots of Americans can identify with her, but Biden is so much prepared, I doubt it is going to be enough to change the course” of the race, he added.
Speaking directly to camera, smiling and even cracking jokes, Palin appeared to regain some of her lost shine and the colloquial, populist touch which had endeared her to the party’s conservative base.
“I will say it ain’t so, Joe. There you go pointing backwards again,” she rebuked Biden at one point, as he linked McCain’s policies to those of unpopular President George W. Bush.
And the governor who was plucked from the obscurity of Alaksa on 29 August to be McCain’s running mate, even tried to turn her lack of experience into an asset ahead of the 4 November presidential elections.
“How long have I been at this? Five weeks,” she said with a laugh, when asked if there were any promises she had made to the public she wouldn’t be able to keep.
She sought to highlight her differences with Biden and Obama, by painting herself and 72-year-old McCain, who has two decades in the Senate, as maverick reformers.
“It’s so obvious I’m a Washington outsider. Someone not used to the way you guys operate. Because here you voted for the war and now you oppose the war,” she needled Biden.
Biden, who has earned a reputation for being long-winded in the past, stood his ground and refused to be riled by the young pup, politely smiling before calmly correcting Palin and offering a more thoughtful, detailed response.
But in one emotional moment Biden choked up when he recalled the death of his first wife and daughter in a car accident which left his two young sons badly hurt.
“The notion somehow because I’m a man I don’t know what it’s like to raise two kids alone, I don’t know what it’s like to have a child you’re not sure is going to make it,” he said, before his voice cracked and he had to pause to compose himself.
“I understand, I understand,” he said, after Palin had sought to claim the mantle of champion of heartland America.
In response, Biden reminded the millions of viewers that he came from a working class background, and vowed he would stand up and fight for the common man.
“So walk with me in my neighborhood, go back to my old neighborhood in an old steel town or go up to Scranton with me. These people know the middle class has gotten the short end. The wealthy have done very well,” he urged.