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Comeback

Sarah Palin changed her image overnight.

1:45 AM, Oct 3, 2008 • By FRED BARNES
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The moment when Sarah Palin knew she was winning last night's debate with her vice presidential opponent Joe Biden came after the subject had turned to nuclear weapons. Palin had talked about nukes as a deterrent and said it was important to keep them out of the hands of dictators who are enemies of America. Then she turned to moderator Gwen Ifill and asked, "Can we talk about Afghanistan real quick?"

Afghanistan? The impression Palin had left in television interviews with ABC's Charles Gibson and CBS's Katie Couric was that she was ill-equipped to discuss issues like that. She just didn't know enough to talk about foreign policy and other weighty matters with even a minimal level of comfort. And this meant she simply wasn't up to being vice president should John McCain win the presidency.

But by that point in the debate--two-thirds the way through--Palin was brimming with self-confidence. She knew she could handle any issue likely to be thrown at her by Ifill. She knew Biden would not outmatch her. So she purposely tackled an issue on which he was expected to have an advantage.

He didn't. She insisted the "surge principles" that had proved effective in Iraq would work in Afghanistan. Biden claimed the commanding general in Afghanistan disagreed. Then Palin said, no, the general didn't disagree, and she spelled out how "the counterinsurgency strategy" favored by McCain (and her) would work.

If that episode didn't demoralize Biden, a senator from Delaware for 35 years, it should have. For it showed she had passed the biggest test any vice presidential candidate faces--a test the media was ready to declare she'd failed. Was she capable of being vice president? Based on her debate performance, the answer was yes.

Not that she came close to matching Biden's experience or extensive knowledge of issues, especially foreign policy issues. But she was conversant with every issue, domestic and foreign, that came up in the 90-minute debate and talked with seeming confidence about them.

She may have passed two other tests as well. Did she once more energize the conservative base of the Republican party as she had when McCain picked her a month ago? Probably. And was her performance strong enough to change the direction of a campaign that has seen Barack Obama widening a lead over McCain in recent weeks? Maybe.

For sure, she did one remarkable thing aside from handling Biden with ease. She undid the negative impression that had been created by her avoidance of most of the media and hardened when the two TV interviews went poorly. Her image was that of someone unqualified to be vice president and uninformed on major issues.

Changing an image overnight is difficult. Ronald Reagan managed it when he debated President Jimmy Carter in 1980 and blew away the widespread notion that he was a warmonger. But I can't think of other examples of this, at least in presidential or veep debates.

Two more things. Palin appeared to be in a good mood during the debate, just as she was when delivering her acceptance speech at the Republican convention four weeks ago. That made her more appealing than Biden, who came off, at times anyway, as less cheerful than he normally is.

And Palin wrote her own closing statement, or so I was told. It included what seemed like an invitation to Biden to have more debates. "I would like more opportunity for this," she said. I suspect Biden wouldn't.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.