Sarah Palin's scintillating success in last week's vice presidential debate with Joe Biden has made her an enormous asset (again) to John McCain's bid for the presidency. Now McCain must decide how to maximize her role in the campaign. Anything short of bringing her front and center makes no sense.
McCain was thrilled by her debate performance. "The kind of excitement that she ignites, frankly, I have not seen before in American politics," he told talk radio host Mike Gallagher. Having gambled in choosing her as his running mate, he may be inclined to double down and give her equal billing in the campaign. He should.
But there are still Palin doubters inside his campaign. Their attitude is relief that Palin got through the debate unscathed. Now they fear that elevating her role would be risky. She'd be vulnerable to the media wolves.
This thinking-that Palin might embarrass McCain-is what prompted the dubious decision to keep her tightly tethered for nearly a month following her rousing acceptance speech at the Republican convention. She gave a few interviews with carefully selected TV anchors, did poorly, and quickly became a burden for McCain, a running mate who failed the do-no-harm test for veep picks.
Her handlers were part of the problem. They gave her index cards on the issues she'd be allowed to discuss, instructed her to stay on message when dealing with the media, told her to echo McCain's thoughts and say little more. When she choked in the television interviews, they blamed her. Even McCain was miffed to find she wasn't reading newspapers and keeping up on daily events.
In 1984, President Reagan's advisers were accused of having "brutalized" him in preparing him for his first (disastrous) debate with Walter Mondale. They coached him to stress details, hardly his forte. Palin, too, was initially prepped to be someone she isn't, a political robot without a mind of her own. In the television interviews, her confidence, charisma, and star quality-her strengths-vanished.
But in the days before last week's debate with Joe Biden, new advisers arrived and Palin was set free-and her campaign task changed. In the debate with Biden, she had to show she understood foreign and domestic policy, could effectively tag Barack Obama as a high tax liberal and national security weakling, was ready to defend McCain and herself as reformers committed to change, and could appeal to middle class voters. She achieved all these while overpowering Biden with her personality.
The best measure of her success in the debate was this: She's been a national political figure for only a few weeks but made no serious mistakes, while Biden, a senator since 1973, committed a string of gaffes. In talking about the Middle East, he made "seven errors in 60 seconds," according to columnist Charles Krauthammer.
If she'd made even one or two of his mistakes, the media and the political community would have begun calling for her ouster from the McCain ticket. Biden, of course, probably won't be held accountable. That he won the debate on points, on substance, is the media's default position.
Her triumph gives her added value as McCain's partner. The question is whether McCain and his advisers will take advantage of her appeal to conservatives and to voters outside the Republican orbit. The early signs are that they will, but only up to a point.
Her public appearances, for now, are focused chiefly on the battleground states of Florida, Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and a few others. Her interviews on local TV will increase dramatically. She'll be a guest on the major conservative talk radio shows. She'll appear on Fox News. She'll be available for limited print interviews.
That, however, does not constitute the fullest and boldest use of Palin. As she demonstrated in the debate, she's smart and quick (smarter and quicker than Biden, for sure). She can handle bigger assignments, including appearances on the big-time network interview shows. She's learned the politician's trick of ignoring questions and making whatever points she wishes.
Palin, now that she's escaped her oppressive handlers, is hard to intimidate. Carl Cameron of Fox News asked her about the 18 lies that Democrats claimed she told in the debate. Anything she'd like to revise or correct? "I mispronounced General McKiernan," the commander in Afghanistan, and "I apologize for that," she said. "Other than that, nope."
She told Cameron that, with the debate out of the way, she wants to be more accessible to the media. She said she'd never been kept away from the press. "I beg to differ with the notion that I was reined in any way," Palin told Cameron. "But if there was any of that, it's over. And we got to be out there."
One more point. It's a waste of time and talent to have Palin stump jointly with McCain. Palin needs to campaign alone. She can handle it. Her crowds will probably be bigger than McCain's, but he's not likely to let his ego interfere with a strategy that improves his chances of winning the White House.
McCain should feel vindicated. His choice of Palin as his running mate has turned out extraordinarily well. There's never been a national candidate like her, a mother of five from the boondocks who grins as she skewers her opponents. More important, she's given a significant gift to McCain. She's improved his chances of winning.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.