Must-see VPs

No knockout, but Palin-Biden bout is great TV

ST. LOUIS -- Anyone looking for a knockout punch or big-time gaffe from either Sarah Palin or Joe Biden is still waiting.

But still, the first and only vice presidential debate was the most compelling 90 minutes of TV on a Thursday night in quite some time. For sheer drama, it beat "Thursday Night Football" and anything the networks could cook up. It was, despite an upbeat opening, an unremittingly tense and sometimes testy exchange between Palin and Biden.

And because of the Palin Factor that has drawn so much attention to this race, the debate is likely to have been watched by more people than reigning Thursday dramas "Grey's Anatomy" and "CSI" combined.

The candidate who was smarting all week following a series of devastating interviews with "CBS Evening News" anchor Katie Couric was an entirely different person onstage at Washington University. Palin went toe to toe with Biden without hesitation and took the offensive many times. Biden, for his part, hit back but showed restraint. Both appeared overall to project what the campaigns wanted them to: competence.

But with a debate more about Palin than Biden, the Alaska governor came across as confident and, in contrast to the Couric interviews, better informed. She did, on several occasions, fail to answer moderator Gwen Ifill's questions -- but made no apology.

"I may not answer the questions the way you and the moderator want to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people," Palin said.

Many the lines were familiar. Palin portrayed herself as a hockey mom and friend of "Joe Six-Pack" who with John McCain would fight for the middle class. Biden mentioned "the bridge to nowhere," though in the context of McCain's health plan.

Both fell into the parts they've been assigned to play, giving props early and often to their running mates. It was almost more of a test of the presidential candidates' positions than it was on what they would do. Biden was cast as the consummate insider. Palin continued to play the role of Washington outsider, painting Biden as part of the problem and McCain and Palin as mavericks out to clean up Washington.

But will it matter? At Washington University on Thursday, the media attention seemed about the same as the first presidential debate in Oxford, Miss. Roger Simon, a columnist for Politico, said before the debate that just because a vp candidate wins a debate doesn't mean they'll win the election. Look no further than 1988, when Democratic candidate Lloyd Bentsen trounced Dan Quayle but lost the election.

"We're dealing with the second spot on the ticket, and there's a great deal of evidence that people don't cast their vote based on the vp candidates," Simon said. "The job for each of them is to remind voters about the top of the ticket."