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The 2008 United States vice-presidential debate, took place on October 2, 2008, between U.S. vice-presidential candidates Sarah Palin, the Governor of Alaskamarker, and Joe Biden, the senior Senator for Delawaremarker, at Washington University in St. Louismarker, and was moderated by Public Broadcasting Service journalist Gwen Ifill. It was the first such debate to feature a female candidate since the 1984 vice presidential debate. The debate was watched by about 70 million viewers according to Nielsen Media Research, making it the most-watched vice-presidential debate in history. It was only the second presidential or vice-presidential debate to surpass 70 million viewers, the first being the 1980 presidential debate between Governor Ronald Reagan and President Jimmy Carter, which drew nearly 81 million viewers.


Washington State Universitymarker in Pullman, Washingtonmarker, had been offered the opportunity to host the debate, but declined in order to pursue hosting one of the presidential debates In November 2007 it was announced that Washington University in St. Louis would be the venue for the debate, making the university the only institution, as of 2008, to have hosted three or more presidential debates.


The scene as the vice-presidential debate concludes at the Washington University Field House
The first 90-minute presidential debate was divided into nine 3-minute issue segments, allowing the candidates to discuss selected topics, answer follow-ups from a moderator and directly address each other. The vice-presidential debate format followed that of the first presidential debate, but included questions on all topics and had shorter response and discussion periods.

The two candidates had never met before, which was part of the build-up to the debate. Palin said on one of her stump speeches before the debate, "I've never met [Biden] before. But I've been hearing about his Senate speeches since I was in, like, second grade." After moderator Gwen Ifill introduced the candidates, where they came out, Palin asked Biden, "Can I call you Joe?" He replied affirmatively. She said at one point, "I may not answer the questions the way the moderator and you want to hear." Critics said she was avoiding the debate itself, while her supporters could make the claim that she was answering the questions to "Joe six-pack" or "hockey moms." She used her inexperience to her advantage by saying, "It's so obvious that I'm a Washingtonmarker outsider and not used to the ways you guys operate."

Palin spoke in greatest depth about energy policy while Biden spoke in greatest depth about foreign affairs. Biden refrained from criticizing Palin, concentrating his criticisms on McCain. While Palin offered brief criticism of Biden, she concentrated most of her criticism on Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. Whereas Biden defended against Palin's criticisms of Obama, Palin tended not to offer detailed defenses against Biden's criticisms of Republican nominee John McCain and the George W. Bush administration, emphasizing instead generalizations about McCain and Palin's plans to reform the ways of Washington. Biden let it be known that he thought at one time McCain was a "maverick," but that is no longer the case.

During the debate Palin made the point of talking about a potential surge strategy in Afghanistanmarker and mentioned the commanding general there as being "McClellan." Pundits criticized Biden's omission of the General's name; he referred to him several times only as the "commanding General in Afghanistan," until it was discovered the General's name is in fact David D. McKiernan.

One of the most memorable moments during the debate came at the end when Biden talked about the tragedy that affected his family when his wife and daughter died and his sons were injured. He explained by saying, "The notion that 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 -- is going to make it -- I understand [...]." Palin did not react to this, instead, returning to her campaign's platform.


Much interest leading up to the debate stemmed from Governor Palin's poorly handled interviews conducted in the weeks leading up to the event; many of her responses were the brunt of severe criticism, and a poll in early October from the Pew Research Center showed that the number of people who believed Palin was qualified to serve as president had dropped to 37% from 52% in early September. Consequently, the vice-presidential debate was largely seen as an opportunity for further destruction or redemption on Palin's part. Several polls suggested that Biden had won the debate; although, many observers were surprised by Palin's speaking abilities and knowledge of John McCain's policies. It is widely agreed that both candidates accurately followed the "do no harm" guideline of vice-presidential debates. James Taylor, professor of political science at the University of San Franciscomarker commented, "[Palin] resuscitated herself, but I'm not sure she did quite enough to do anything for John McCain." He added "Biden demonstrated he knows John McCain better than Sarah Palin does. She couldn't offer rebuttals during the depth of discussions. She read the Cliff Notes on McCain, and Biden has known John McCain."

According to a poll of uncommitted voters conducted immediately after the debate by CBS News and the former Knowledge Network, 46% thought Senator Biden won the debate, 21% thought Governor Palin had won, and 33% thought it was a tie. Fox News Channel held a poll regarding the performance of each candidate, with 51% of the votes in favor of Biden, and 39% in favor of Palin. Another poll jointly held by The Washington Post and ABC News found that 32% of registered voters who watched the debate said Palin's selection as the vice presidential candidate made them less likely to vote for McCain, up from 19% prior to the debate. Only 35% thought Palin had the experience to effectively serve as president (down 14% from polls taken in early September), and 60% thought not, up 15%. The Opinion Research Corporation's poll on the debate revealed that 51% of viewers felt Biden had won, while 36% were in favor of Palin. In the same poll, 87% said Biden was capable of fulfilling the duties of the vice presidency, while 42% said Palin is. Palin was considered more likable however, scoring 54% to Biden's 36%. Mark Halperin of Time graded both candidates' performances a B.

The event overall was widely described as having little effect on the 2008 presidential race, although a CBS News poll found that the presidential race tightened following the vice-presidential debate, with the Obama-Biden lead falling from 9 points to 4 points.

Moderator Gwen Ifill

The debate's format offered moderator Gwen Ifill great freedom and power to decide the questions which can cover domestic or international issues. On the day before the debate, it gained wide media attention that Ifill had authored a new book The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, which was to be released by publisher Doubleday on January 20, 2009, the day of the presidential inauguration. Ifill did not inform the debate commission about her book. Fox News' Washington managing editor Brit Hume claimed Ifill had a "financial stake" in an Obama victory because of the profit she stood to make from her book. "There's not a lot of demand out there for books about the 'Age of [Walter] Mondale' or the 'Age of [John] Kerry,'" said former Indianamarker Representative John Hostettler. John McCain said he was confident Ifill would do “a totally objective job,” but stated, “Does this help that if she has written a book that’s favorable to Senator Obama? Probably not.” In response to the controversy, Ifill questioned why people assume that her book will be favorable toward Obama, saying "Do you think they made the same assumptions about Lou Cannon [who is white] when he wrote his book about [Ronald] Reagan?".

A national poll was held immediately following the vice-presidential debate, indicating that 95% of viewers felt Ifill was fair and unbiased.

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