Sidekick boxing

Networks might be real winners in VP debate

Talk about must-see TV. Maybe the first John McCain-Barack Obama go-round wasn't as widely watched as expected, but tonight's vice presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden looks to be everything that their running mates' was not.

After a series of interviews with "CBS Evening News" anchor Katie Couric that raised eyebrows and blood pressures from all sides of the political spectrum as well as Tina Fey's caricature on "Saturday Night Live," there is growing evidence that Palin will be a big draw when she and Biden meet for the only time beginning at 9 p.m. ET at Washington University in St. Louis. The fact that it's being held on a Thursday, one of the most popular nights for TV, almost certainly will help in the way that a low-rated Friday night didn't for McCain vs. Obama.

"A lot of people are anticipating this to be almost a 'Saturday Night Live' live," said Tammy Vigil, an assistant professor of communications at Boston University and a co-author of the upcoming book, "The Third Agenda in U.S. Presidential Debates." "The entertainment value on this debate is going to be huge."

There's no question that Palin has captured America's attention, energizing both the Republican and Democratic bases and creating more than her share of sound bites since McCain picked her Aug. 29. Two "SNL" episodes featuring Fey as Palin have given the late-night sketch show its best ratings in some time. A poll released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press found that 64% of those surveyed said they would watch the debate, compared with 58% who last week said they were going to tune in for the first presidential debate.

"This is going to be a hugely rated debate," said Chuck Todd, political director of NBC News. "Whether you're a fan of hers or you're not a fan, it's a white-knuckle affair."

That means that Palin-Biden could see viewership higher than McCain-Obama, which averaged 52.4 million viewers. The most-watched vp debate in history came Oct. 11, 1984, when George H.W. Bush debated Geraldine Ferraro, the first female vp candidate of a major party. It averaged 56.7 million viewers. The 2004 vp debate — there is only one every year — brought in 43.6 million viewers. Most vp debates aren't known on their own for their high interest level, even with famous moments like Lloyd Bentsen's "You're no Jack Kennedy" line to Dan Quayle in 1988 or Adm. Jim Stockdale's less-than-impressive performance in the three-way 1992 vp debate.

"I think people are expecting to see fireworks or a mistake from one of them," said Diana Carlin, a former adviser to the Commission on Presidential Debates and a co-author of "The Third Agenda in U.S. Presidential Debates."

That's not usually the reason why people turn into the vp debates.

"Usually a vice presidential debate is a low-key event," BU's Vigils aid.

During their debate, vp hopefuls usually are considered to reflect on the character and decision-making of the presidential candidate.

"One of the major responsibilities of the vp debate is to bolster the top of the ticket," Carlin said. "(Palin) is going to be talking about John McCain more than she will be talking about herself. And Biden too, he'll be talking about Obama."

Palin and Biden have spent the past several days huddled with advisers, preparing for the 90-minute debate that will clear out two hours of primetime on many channels. Both candidates have extensive debate experience, with Palin sparring with her Alaska gubernatorial opponents more than two dozen times in 2006. Biden has run for president twice and was first elected to the Senate in 1972. That was mocked by Palin in speeches this week, when she said, "I've been hearing about his Senate speeches since I was in, like, second grade."

What about Biden, who was once described in the New York Times as loving to hear himself talk and is prone to gaffes of his own?

"Nobody's watching it for Joe Biden," Todd said. "Let's stop pretending."

Experts think that the Palin-Biden debate will be great political theater, though one that many will consider a win for Palin if she doesn't make a major gaffe. Todd noted that many Americans already have a strong view of her.

"When you have that kind of heavy skew, that is going to color how you judge her onstage that night," Todd said.

He dismissed the prospects of Palin scoring a major victory with voters.

"I don't know how she comes out of it in good political shape," Todd said. "I think she can survive it."

He said that Palin was able to survive the scrutiny that ABC's Charles Gibson gave her during his interviews; the interviews with Couric have been rougher sledding for the governor. Pew said Palin's favorable ratings have been in flux, though "changing views of Palin are much more negative than positive."

Experts say it's unfair to judge interest in the presidential campaign based on tepid ratings for the presidential debate Friday night.

"Apparently the debate commission didn't ever have kids in high school and didn't understand what Friday night was in this country," NBC's Todd said.

Carlin said the debate commission had a tough scheduling job with the new TV season, NFL and college football games, baseball's postseason and the Emmys, while also fitting the three presidential debates and the vp face-off around the schedule of the candidates.

"To find four nights in a 2 1/2-week time span is difficult," Carlin said.

The debate's moderator became the issue for some of the time Wednesday as conservative media sources questioned whether PBS' Gwen Ifill could be objective after word leaked out that she was writing a book about Barack Obama and the revolution in American politics. But neither McCain nor analysts thought it was going to be a problem.

University of Virginia professor and noted analyst Larry Sabato said that she shouldn't be replaced.

"This is a classic debate tactic," Sabato said. "The referee has been put on notice by one campaign. If she asks too many tough questions of Palin, she'll be gored on the blogs and on cable TV. It's a loud-and-clear message in advance to 'back off,' lest unnecessary pain be inflicted afterward."

McCain said in an interview with Fox News Channel's Carl Cameron that it wasn't a big deal for him, either.

"Gwen Ifill is a professional, and I think that she will do a totally objective job," he said. (partialdiff)