Alan Greenblatt is a GOVERNING correspondent.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The general commentariat pre-debate buzz is that Gov. Sarah Palin will do better in tonight's debate than in her disastrous interviews with Katie Couric. I'm not convinced of this, because Couric's questions were mainly the sort of big-topic, open-ended questions that a debate moderator will pose (although admittedly some of Palin's most damaging comments came in response to follow-ups).
Well, we'll know soon enough. But this will turn out to be an important question. So far, Palin has shown little ability to think on her feet or even to bluster her way through with pre-fab soundbites. If she can't come through tonight, I think it will have real consequences for her future.
Palin's turned out, much as I expected after her bravura convention speech, to be a polarizing figure. Recent polls indicate she's hurting the Republican ticket, with not just Democrats but independents turned off by her. A Washington Post poll released today indicated that Palin is driving away more voters from John McCain than she's wooing, and that a majority doesn't believe she's qualified for the job.
Still, that same poll found that a majority of respondents view her favorably. She clearly has touched a favorable nerve among a large segment of the electorate. It's that group that I think is on the line for her tonight.
Palin has already lost support among some conservatives due to her poor performance in her few interviews thus far. If she can't do well at the debate, she'll lose more.
The McCain campaign will put her deeper into a box. There's been talk this week that they hope she'll stop being "an issue" for them after the debate.
That means that even if McCain ends up winning, the vice presidency will return to its traditional, low-grade stature. Forget the influence of a Cheney or even a Gore. Palin's passport will get plenty of stamps as she attends foreign funerals.
And what if the Republicans lose? Palin will continue serving as governor, obviously. I wonder what her reception will be like back home in Alaska. The national fixation on her has turned up all kinds of dirt that hasn't played well there, such as her willingness to bill the state for nights spent at home. The legislature will be angry that she openly spurned its investigation into Troopergate, after welcoming it.
Her luster as a reformer has certainly been tarnished. Despite this, I would guess she'll remain popular -- certainly as long as oil revenues are strong. But will Palin remain a national force?
After her convention speech, I was sure she would be. She was such a great spokeswoman for movement conservatives, appealing to Republicans on a broad range of issues -- taxes, defense policy, certainly social issues -- all delivered in a convincingly populist manner. At that point, I was sure she'd be a national force to reckon with for years to come, win or lose.
But her performance since then has been so abysmal that I wonder. Maybe the people who are calling for the McCain campaign to "let Sarah be Sarah" have a point, that she's been unfairly squirreled away and has been choking on all the flash cards they've been feeding her. Maybe she'd do better if she weren't so sequestered.
She's shown no evidence of it, though. And, if she flubs tonight, I doubt she'll command another stage big enough to change people's impressions.
Palin may remain a folk hero to a certain segment of the party, but if she can't get her act together she won't get another chance to emerge as a figure of real stature.
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