Must-see VPs

No knockout, but bout is great TV

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.

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. (partialdiff)