So it began, the battle for middle America. Senator Joseph Biden flashed a smile of assent, and moved to his podium. Sarah Palin looked confident, assured, enthusiastic, a long way from the nervous wreck she ought to have been. Whoever pepped her up for this pep rally, they did a damn good job.
Biden and I weren’t the only people worried about falling under her spell.
Others had already succumbed. I’m talking about the kind of wholesome, patriotic, all-Americans she's been selected to hold a mirror up to. Except that hers is a special mirror, one that only reflects their better angels, against the backdrop of a country occasionally glimpsed in their wholesome, patriotic, all-American dreams.
Even those of us on foreign shores probably see in Palin a flash of something we’d like to believe in, of a nation founded on hard work and good intentions. We certainly voted with our feet on Thursday night, making up what was (allowing for internet audiences as well as the 69.9million viewers who tuned in in the US) the most watched debate of all time, vice-presidential or otherwise. And rightly so. Anybody thinking they won't be affected by the outcome of this election would need to have left planet Earth some time ago.
That being the case, the result of the election may still be decided by a few hundred thousand people, in each of half a dozen states. These are the people for whom Palin is positioned as a natural friend, confidante and kindred spirit, someone who sits around a kitchen table bearing the weight of the same concerns on her broad, maternal shoulders.
This, of course, is bullshit.
The reality is that she’s the worst of both worlds, with more skeletons in her closet than your average Stepford wife, yet the vanity to have been persuaded that she should be just a heartbeat away from running the country. This, on the strength of having done little more than muddle her way through the same challenges many of us face trying to keep control of our cut-throat careers and fucked-up family lives.
It took only a few well-chosen words for Joe Biden to remind us that Sarah Palin has by no means a monopoly on hardship and adversity, or on the tenacity required to turn these to your advantage. On the contrary, Biden gives us a glimpse of a life less ordinary, delivered with a candour and honesty far less contrived than that of his opponent. He looks like a man who's learnt enough things the hard way to be tasked with making decisions on behalf of others. He gives us the credit for having been around the block a few times ourselves.
Biden's was a message of hope and encouragement, acknowledging the epochal importance of this election, and unchallenged in bestowing a damning verdict upon the last eight years. It was as much as Palin could do to keep distance between her ticket and the many manifest policy failures of the incumbent administration.
And, despite all her 'say it ain't so, Joe' protestations, it was Palin who ultimately invoked the message of fear and intimidation so fundamental to the Bush Doctrine, reasserting the facile and insidious mantra that it is the essential liberty of the American people that gains them so many enemies overseas.
It looks ever more as though only fear can win this battle now for John McCain. I'm talking about the fear that flows as an undercurrent through American society, occasionally swelling to the surface and erupting into outrage when a certain type of pressure is applied. This is the fear that can divide a nation along the fault-lines of race, religion and economic viability. This is the fear that still grips a significant proportion of the electorate when they consider voting for Barack Obama. Perhaps this is the fear that he will actually deliver on the promise of change, and that there will be no place for them in his America, a country unified by hope, and given strength in self-belief.
Whatever the case, it's going to get worse before it gets better. As the momentum shifts left, the more authoritarian McCain's candidacy can be expected to become, bullying the media and smearing and discrediting his opponents. Expect the rhetoric of intimidation, tapping ever deeper into these fears and anxieties, sugar-coated with the folksy familiarity, unblinking loyalty and saccharine certitude of his supposedly home-baked running mate. She has shown us, at the very least, that she can be well programmed.
That's how I heard that the GOP had just given up any attempt to turn the great state of Michigan red come November 5th 2008.
They'll tell you that it wasn't a key state for them, but it must have mattered enough for them to decide that it was worth spending some money there in the first place.
And that's part of the problem, right there. By accepting matching funds, McCain is having to deal with the campaign spending restrictions that go with them. If he needs to spend more fighting battles in supposedly safer states like Indiana and Virginia - and he does - he has to start cutting losses elsewhere. Even Rove can't spin that to make it look like a good thing.
Meanwhile the Obama camp, having eschewed federal assistance, are now free to spend as much as they can raise. They were busy launching an Obama '08 iPhone application. Might sound like a gimmick, but Twitter quickly came alive with positive feedback, reporting that the app makes smart use of the iPhone platform to engender greater awareness of Barack Obama's.
All of this just a few hours ahead of the vice-presidential debate, and a chance for Sarah Palin to stop haemmoraging credibility (or, according to one CNN closed caption, 'edibility') after a week in virtual freefall. The sense of anticipation on Twitter was palpable, with the left-leaning crowd quivering at the prospect of yet another own-goal from the free-scoring hockey mom.
At the same time, some armchair commentators were counselling caution, noting that Palin's currency had nowhere to go but up. Her performance would need to be little more than polysyllabic to be championed - on Fox News at least - as a shock victory for the little guy.
Let's get it straight right now. News 24 is for wimps. I've been mainlining this Twitter shit for days, carried through the veins of netroots political activism, pure, uncut, 100% District of Columbian.
My iPhone sits here, like a drip, feeding it to me intravenously, a steady unrelenting trickle of quips, commentary and outright provocation, filling me with the lifeblood of a good old-fashioned down and dirty god damn important presidential election campaign.
And the best thing about it? Well, every now and then, if you watch closely, and check your sources, you get to see that most wonderful of things.
So it’s welcome, one and all, as we go head-to-head here tonight, with Senate heavyweight and Democrat candidate for the Vice-Presidency Joe Biden taking on self-styled ‘Joe Six-pack American’ and Republican VPILF Sarah Palin.
We’ve already witnessed a thrilling first bout in the 2008 series. Somewhere between the irritable accusations of John ‘McSame’ McCain and the conciliatory counterpunches of Barack ‘Osama’ Obama each camp claimed a victory.
In the eyes of this pundit at least it was McSame who came off worst. Looking more war-horse than war hero, he was ultimately driven to behave like a low-ranking monkey. Never a good look, for a man who would be king.
And now comes the turn of our candidates for the Vice-Presidency, in what is surely the most tantalising and eagerly anticipated encounter of the series so far.
In the blue corner, born in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1942, we have a man who became the fifth youngest senator in US history when he was elected to represent the state of Delaware in 1973. A long-time member and current chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, with 25 years of service to the US Senate under his belt, it's Joseph “Joe” Biden!
And it’s Palin everybody’s talking about in the build up to fight night, as she continues her seemingly implausible progress through the ranks of American party politics. Were she to make it within a 72-year-old’s heartbeat of the country’s highest office, surely this would be the greatest story ever told, and the ultimate triumph of the American Dream over the tedious trappings of reality, pragmatism and plain old common sense.
She’s certainly come out fighting. It was Palin who used a public appearance to stir up a war of words with Biden, seeming to suggest that the 65-year-old’s age might be an issue for his candidacy. “I’m the new energy”, she declared, drawing attention to the fact that while her opponent was passing throw-away legislation across the floor of the Senate, she was debating the ethics of moose-hunting at Wasilla High.
With Biden keeping his own counsel in the build up to fight night, all this talk from the Palin camp has left pundits (some of them staunch Republicans) openly questioning whether these two fighters even belong in the same ring.
Certainly, it’s hard to see how a political featherweight like Palin could ever get the better of a seasoned pro like Joe Biden. In this pundit’s opinion, however, Biden needs to be careful.
Palin’s might have her detractors among the educated liberal classes, but she's been 'awful busy' winning over hearts and minds throughout the mindless heartlands of middle America, and is not without her sympathisers among the mainstream US electorate. Biden has to find some way to land enough telling blows, without ever being seen to strike the lady.
Palin, on the other hand, has nothing to lose. Expectations are so low, all she has to do last a few rounds, go the distance even, and she gives herself a fighting chance of claiming victory.
Fight fans, whatever happens, just remember this. It isn’t down to Fox News to tell you who won. We’re the judges here, not just some unwitting audience, herded towards somebody else’s conclusion.
Maybe, if we judge for ourselves, we'll see that Palin's candidacy is just a cynical sleight of hand, seeking the right person for the ticket, at the expense of getting the right person for the job.
Right now, that’s a billion dollar maybe.
Quick word of thanks to KidRobot23 and Annie Ok for some eleventh hour help with this one.