Debate dos and don’ts

In the hours and days that followed Barack Obama’s selection of Joe Biden as his running mate, Democrats licked their chops in anticipation of the vice presidential debate, after which Biden’s vanquished opponent would surely be left begging for mercy. Now, as he readies for his debate against Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Biden is looking for a little mercy himself.

Palin is, of course, no match for Biden, whose experience and policy heft exceeded that of most of the presidential contenders from both parties in the 2008 race, including Obama. And Palin’s few television interviews, where her answers ranged from circular to gibberish, have sent the poll numbers tanking for the McCain-Palin ticket.

But what appears an uphill battle for Palin is actually a far steeper challenge for Biden. To start with, Palin did very well in her gubernatorial debates in Alaska. While she tended to avoid specifics, she was calm, comfortable and confident. Palin can do better than she did in those interviews, and that is really all she must do.

For Biden, however, the debate is fraught with peril. First of all, the fix is in and Republicans are bashing moderator Gwen Ifill for what appears to be a pro-Obama book she has set to publish on Inauguration Day. Score one for Palin.

Secondly, unlike any debate of his career, merit is out the window. There should be no zingers, no display of his vast knowledge; it will only lead critics to paint him as a grandstanding windbag. Too many compliments in Biden’s gaffe-prone manner could lead to charges of sexism. Smiles and overt displays of respect are the order of the day — while carefully avoiding the appearance of condescension, of course.

A Marist poll has already concluded, by a margin of 2-to-1, that Biden will come off as knowing more than Palin — but that she will be more appealing (by a ratio of 65-23). Ouch. So, absent a stumble, it seems Palin can’t really lose and Biden can’t really win. Here is some advice nonetheless:

Joe — make a joke or two at your own expense, but, God forbid, not at Sarah’s — or any other woman’s, for that matter. Smile humbly, not confidently. Find a way to address the sexism charge and roundly denounce such treatment of women. Repeatedly raise your record on women’s issues; make it clear you championed the Violence Against Women Act. Remind the audience that Palin is not the candidate, but McCain is, and attack his record. Don’t point out that she disagrees with McCain on stem cell research, abortion exceptions, global warming or even Pakistan. Leave that to Ifill. Never talk about your many trips overseas long ago, just raise McCain’s record on foreign policy through the prism of your knowledge.

Sarah — Be that debater who wins with the sound down. Confident smiles but no smirks or hand gestures. Lots of discussion of all those different taxes you cut as mayor of Wasilla and all the reforms you have set in motion in Juneau. Describe your experience as a whistleblower who took on her party during your tenure as oil and gas commissioner. Talk about McCain’s bipartisan record. Show your knowledge on the energy issue.

Talk about the hunger for reform that you hear about from voters as you travel the country and how two liberal senators — one without enough experience and the other too much the Washington insider — aren’t what the country needs in this time of crisis. Make no mention of the Bridge to Nowhere, please. Don’t make fun of Biden’s age, and avoid any McCain-isms like excessive blinking and fake smiles. For goodness’ sake, look at Biden. Finally, resist the temptation to refer to yourself as “Joe Six-Pack,” as you like to do, since your opponent’s name is Joe.

May the best Joe win.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.