All week leading up to Thursday night’s debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, NBC’s Today show suggested that the Republican vice presidential nominee could be a disaster on stage, pointing out how “conservatives question her qualifications;” “the McCain campaign is worried;” “Palin stumbled again;” and “not ready for prime time.”
But on Friday morning, after Palin proved the hand-wringers wrong, co-host Matt Lauer suggested that the “melt down” expectations were never the right yardstick for pundits. Lauer asked Tom Brokaw: “Everything you read and hear about the debate this morning is going to say that Governor Palin exceeded expectations, but in your opinion did she exceed expectations simply because she didn't melt down on the stage or did she show the kind of grasp of the issues and the subjects required to hold the second highest job in the land?”
Brokaw admitted Palin had displayed a “winning” personality: “I rarely get into that who won and who lost and how far she raised the bar. I do think that she was winning for herself. She had winning ways on stage. And what she did was put aside all those low expectations that people had about her. Did she bring people across the line to the McCain campaign? That's the real test.”
Correspondent Andrea Mitchell also admitted that Palin had performed well: “Sarah Palin stopped the bleeding with a performance that by most accounts should be enough to refocus this campaign on the main act, the candidates for president of the United States....Sarah Palin: confident....folksy....locking on to the camera, even on occasion winking to the audience — clearly well-practiced, as she at times sidestepped questions to answer her own....Such a strong performance that supporters will love it even though critics will still find much to question.”
Earlier this week, Today joined the chorus of those doubting Palin, largely as the result of her recent interviews with CBS’s Katie Couric.
■ Monday, September 29, Matt Lauer began today: “Showtime, the pressure builds on Republican VP choice Sarah Palin as some conservatives question her qualifications.”
Lauer asked former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney about Palin’s abilities: “She's gotten some tough reviews in this interview with Katie Couric, this past week, and some have now called for her to step aside....Are you worried, at all, going into Thursday's debate that opposite Joe Biden, she's, she's not gonna look vice presidential, or presidential for that matter?”
■ Tuesday, September 30: After running through an alleged gaffe by Palin regarding U.S. intervention in Pakistan, Andrea Mitchell summed up: “In fact the McCain campaign is so worried about Palin's ability to debate Joe Biden, she's gone home with the McCains, for debate camp in Arizona, supervised by McCain's own top strategists. Matt?”
■ Wednesday, October 1: Lauer asked NBC political director Chuck Todd if the perceived missteps would somehow help Palin by lower expectations: “Let me start with tomorrow night's vice presidential debate and Sarah Palin, whose, whose critics have been tough on her for the interview she's or given over the last couple of days. Is it possible she's now lowered expectations so much that this will work to her benefit?”
Todd argued that regardless of what pundits expected, Palin would not be able to skirt by with a sub-par performance: “We play this game a lot and campaigns try to play the expectations game but she may have gone beyond that at this point. I mean, when you think about the fact that one out of three sitting vice presidents eventually become President of the United States, I think that she's not going to be able to get away with just being able to say, well, expectations are, you know, below the floorboards. That's fine for an interview with a news anchor. That's not gonna be fine for a 90 minute debate where she's gonna be expected to be on her toes for the entire 90 minutes. So I don't think the expectations game is what they ought to be playing here. It's about staying, staying on par and being a legitimate national candidate.”
■ Thursday, October 2: The morning of the debate, co-host Ann Curry said the question was “whether Palin is really up to the job,” and reporter Andrea Mitchell highlighted how Palin “stumbled again” in an interview with Couric, and declared Palin the “decided underdog” in the debate:
ANN CURRY: Of course the economy will be a part, a major part of tonight's one and only vice presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden. Well, people around the nation are expected glue the to their sets with questions swirling about Biden's wild card reputation and whether Palin is really up to the job. NBC's Andrea Mitchell is in St. Louis this morning with a preview. Hey, Andrea, good morning.
ANDREA MITCHELL: Good morning Ann. Well, as the candidates get ready for tonight's all-important debate, a new "Washington Post"/ABC poll reveals that confidence in Sarah Palin's readiness to serve is plummeting, even as Palin stumbled again in a newly released television interview. Sarah Palin, the decided underdog in tonight's matchup, took time out from cramming for the debate on John McCain's Arizona ranch to defend herself from critics on Sean Hannity's radio show....CBS also aired another segment of Palin's interview with Katie Couric who stumped Palin by asking her to cite Supreme Court cases.
KATIE COURIC: What other Supreme Court decisions do you disagree with?
PALIN: Well, let's see. There's -- of course, in the great history of America, there have been rulings that there's never going to be absolute consensus by every American. And there are those issues, again, like Roe v. Wade where I believe are best held on a state level and addressed there. So, you know, going through the history of America, there -- there would be others.
MITCHELL: In fact, Palin is no newcomer to debates, debating more than two dozen times in her run for governor....often scoring points with her personality....Still, even some conservative critics say she is not ready for prime time.”
Lauer asked GOP strategist Mike Murphy about Palin: “Some of the reviews for her interview appearances over the last couple of weeks have been withering. I mean, David Brooks, the conservative columnist, said a it was a catastrophe, that he couldn't watch it. He had to turn away. So what exactly does she have to do to walk out of this debate tonight with not only her head held high but with the chances for the Republican ticket intact?”
This morning, the spin was that Palin had knocked all such doubts away, but rather than concede that the media was guilty of drawing broad conclusions about Palin based on just a few minutes of videotape, NBC’s analysts emphasized their speculation that the overall race still favored the Democrats.
Here are some highlights from Friday’s coverage, as transcribed the MRC’s Justin McCarthy:
MATT LAUER: Good morning. Mission accomplished, Sarah Palin and Joe Biden square off in their first and only debate with no knock-out punches. Did either of them manage to sway any undecided voters?...
ANN CURRY: And this debate that everybody seemed to watch is now history. Both Joe Palin- or Joe Biden and Sarah Palin seemed to accomplish what they meant to do Matt.
LAUER: That's right. We have to be honest. In some recent TV interviews, Governor Palin has been a bit shaky, but last night, she appeared pretty confident. She peppered her comments with down-home phrases. Joe Biden for his part stayed away from attacking her and focused taking shots at John McCain instead. They sparred over the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, energy and a lot more. But, did either of them do anything to change the race? We're going to hear from all sides in a moment, as well as from some undecided voters, Ann....
CURRY: But let's begin with a spirited debate in St. Louis between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. NBC's Andrea Mitchell was there and she's got more for us this morning. Hey Andrea, good morning.
ANDREA MITCHELL: Good morning Ann. Well, Sarah Palin stopped the bleeding with a performance that by most accounts should be enough to refocus this campaign on the main act, the candidates for president of the United States....As was clear right from the beginning, it was a debate as much about style as substance....Sarah Palin confident....folksy...locking on to the camera, even on occasion winking to the audience — clearly well-practiced ,as she at times sidestepped questions to answer her own.
GOVERNOR SARAH PALIN: I may not answer the questions that either you or the moderator want to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record, also.....
MITCHELL: A strong performance by both — and by Palin, such a strong performance that supporters will love it even though critics will still find much to question, Matt.
LAUER: Tom Brokaw is moderator of "Meet the Press" and he'll be moderating the next presidential debate next Tuesday night. Tom, good morning to you....Everything you read and here about the debate this morning is going to say that Governor Palin exceeded expectations, but in your opinion did she exceed expectations simply because she didn't melt down on the stage or did she show the kind of grasp of the issues and the subjects required to hold the second highest job in the land?
BROKAW: Well, I think that that judgment is being made this morning in coffee shops and car-pools and in offices, people are making that kind of decision. I rarely get into that who won and who lost and how far she raised the bar. I do think that she was winning for herself. She had winning ways on stage. And what she did was put aside all those low expectations that people had about her. Did she bring people across the line to the McCain campaign? That's the real test of all. And, Matt, what she probably did was give the campaign an emotional boost just when they needed it. They abandoned Michigan yesterday, which was the real political news of the last 24 hours.
LAUER: Back to the debate for a second. You watched Joe Biden a lot over the years. Did you think he was a little rattled by her, that he was expecting in some ways to be standing across the stage from the same person he saw in Katie's interview last week and when he didn't see that he didn't quite know how to handle it?
BROKAW: Well, I think that going in he was very mindful of the fact that if he overpowered her or seemed to be condescending that would go south on him in a hurry. I was very surprised when she said you are raising the white flag of surrender. He didn't come back at that point talking about their policy for getting out of Iraq. But Senator Biden carried his brief very well. At the end of the debate I thought he was especially strong when as we just saw in Andrea's report when he said John McCain's been no maverick and he ticked off all the issues in which McCain has not been a maverick.
LAUER: So is perhaps that one thing that was accomplished in this debate last night, since there were no knock-out punches, that as Andrea mentioned, focus now goes back on John McCain and Barack Obama?
BROKAW: That was always going to be the case. We don't vote for vice president, we vote for president. There have been any numbers of instances over the year, Dan Quayle did not have a good debate at all and yet his ticket won. You remember four years ago everybody thought John Edwards would be able to clock Dick Cheney and he did not and they went on to win.
LAUER: Real, real, quickly, you're moderating next Tuesday night. Did you see anything in the way the debate was conducted last night that's going to make you change your approach next Tuesday night?
BROKAW: Mine next week is a combination of town hall and electronic questions and my questions. I think what was missing from last night, was a fuller discussion of the economy, which is what everyone is really concerned about these days, didn't talk about job creation, didn't talk about NAFTA, no talk about immigration in any of these debates yet. So we've got a lot of subjects that we'll get to on Tuesday night.