Sarah Palin did well enough tonight to salvage her chances of emerging from this campaign as a legitimate mainstream national political figure, which I was glad to see. She still has a long way to go, and could easily backslide, but for now she's made clear that she is a serious political talent who, with time, is likely to master national policy matters.
Her political skills will be severely tested in the next couple of years, because her emergence seriously threatens others who are trying to position themselves as the next leader of the conservative wing of the Republican Party -- including Mitt Romney, who will certainly seek to undermine and sabotage her career early, before it can take root. She would be wise to be carefully laying the foundation now for transfering the McCain political infrastructure to her own advantage.
This analysis you are reading is of course predicated on the premise that the McCain-Palin ticket will fail on November 4th, which I think is a pretty safe assumption at this hour; Palin's reasonably sure-footed performance certainly did little or nothing other than prevent (or at least delay) a total disintegration of the doomed Republican ticket. Palin may have won fans, or at least made her existing ones less queasy, but the product she's pitching isn't selling. (I didn't watch the CNN dial-response, but one observer noted that Palin periodically got good scores -- that quickly came crashing down as soon as she mentioned McCain.) And the team nursing the lead just made it past one of the few remaining potential obstacles to victory, without tripping on their faces. In fact, I thought Biden did quite well at his job of tying McCain, continually, to the failed policies of the Bush administration.
At this point, the McCain campaign is clearly hoping for miracles; it was reported today that A) they are conceding Michigan, once a central part of their plan; B) they need to win either Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Pennsylvania -- in all of which McCain is trailing badly and looking worse by the day; and C) they intend to pump money into an effort to win Maine.
Since McCain is trailing badly in Maine, I have to assume that the McCain camp is now spending good money -- money it could clearly use in other states -- in hopes of exploiting Maine's split-electoral system to score a triple-bank shot. Maine has four electoral college votes: two go to the state-wide winner, and one each to the winner of each congressional district. That means that maybe, just maybe, McCain can pick off one of those districts and win an elector, which would break the 269-269 tie that would occur if McCain can stop the Obama tide at all the 2004 Dem states, minus NH, and plus IA, NM, and CO, which all look pretty safe for Obama. Of course, that would mean McCain winning New Hampshire -- where a new poll has Obama up by a mile -- as well as a whole slew of other states where he's in trouble. (The latest Politico map has Obama clocking in with a robust 353 electors.) To be fair, at one point I heard that Obama was working a similar tie-breaker idea in Nebraska, the other state that splits electors, but I don't think they actually diverted funds to that effort.
McCain needs game-changers, as the pundits like to say these days, and this wasn't one -- nor was it likely to be, for reasons I've spouted elsewhere.
The only particular moment of the night that I thought could have an impact on the race, came when Ifill asked Palin whether she had any criticism of George Bush's handling of Israel. Palin essentially said no, after which Biden said that the administration made huge mistakes by allowing the elections that put Hamas in power in the West Bank, and by failing to get NATO troops into southern Lebanon, thus leaving a vacuum for Hezbollah to take control there. Palin, rather than respond, made a cute, pre-packaged retort about Obama-Biden always looking backward and playing the blame game, rather than talking about the future -- a neat little piece of rhetoric to counter Bush-McCain attacks, but not at that juncture. For those who make Israel a major piece of their voting decision (and who are much courted by both campaigns), the empowerment of Hamas and Hezbollah is not something to be shrugged off as pointless rehashing of the past. Palin could have argued that neither situation can be blamed on Bush, or she could have agreed with Biden that both situations are unacceptable and talked about what to do about it. Not taking it seriously was a potentially harmful mistake.