WASHINGTON -- What did they do with the other Sarah Palin?
I mean the one who bases foreign policy experience on the proximity of Russia to Alaska and who speaks cutely about Vladimir Putin poking his little head into American airspace. Where did they put her?
The Palin who performed so miserably in one-on-one media interviews was nowhere to be seen during Thursday night's debate with Joe Biden. Instead, the affable, tough, determined pit-bull-hockey mom presented to the GOP convention was back with a jaw-jutting, happy-warrior vengeance.
So, yes, I am relieved. I had been concerned that she would stumble badly and humiliate herself. No fair-minded person wanted that. In fact, she managed to control the debate in many respects by bridging from the question asked to the talking point she wanted to hammer.
She was often too cute by half -- winking and gosh-darning her way through the debate -- but she did what she needed to do. Among other things, she declared a populist war of Us vs. Them -- everyday, honest, hardworking Americans against Wall Street, greed, corrupt politicians, liberals and, of course, the media.
Poor Gwen Ifill was irrelevant -- a second-tier actor in Palin's morality play. Over and over, Palin skipped past Ifill, as well as Biden, to speak directly to the American people. I am one of you, she told them. And these people -- Democrats and the media -- are neither of us, nor for us.
And she said it in the nicest, gosh-darn way, bless her little heart. The GOP loved it, but did anyone else? Did Palin change hearts and minds? Probably not. My suspicion, bolstered by early polls, is that people left the debate with their original impressions intact.
To Democrats, she's still a dangerous lightweight, though possibly more so than they suspected because she is also a charming and effective manipulator. To Republicans, she's a bright light, a change agent, a reformer and a maverick who identifies with real people around the kitchen table.
With the very first question about the bailout bill -- was this the worst of Washington or the best of Washington? -- Palin went straight to her hockey mom narrative, though she switched to the more mainstream soccer field.
"As we try to figure out has this been a good time or a bad time in America's economy, is go to a kid's soccer game on Saturday, and turn to any parent there on the sideline and ask them, 'How are you feeling about the economy?' And I'll betcha you're going to hear some fear in that parent's voice."
Of course, if you go to a Starbucks today and ask the iPodder blogging on her Apple about Sarah Palin, you're gonna hear some fear in that person's voice, also. Betcha!
Palin's strategy throughout the evening was to avoid questions to which she didn't have answers and rely on the American people to like her so much they didn't care.
"I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record also," she said when asked to respond to a Biden comment about deregulation.
Repeatedly, Palin moved the debate to her own territory -- to her record as a mayor and governor, her message of reform and, yes, that she and McCain are mavericks.
The governor of Alaska had an excellent night, there's no question about it, though the early debate polls showed Biden winning by a healthy margin.
Before we relax into giddiness or cynicism, however, it's important to consider that a debate differs from an interview in significant ways. A debate is a point-counterpoint exercise that allows little opportunity for probing or follow-up. An interview requires that a candidate explain an idea in depth and offer specifics.
The Katie Couric interview that was such a disaster for Palin -- and that prompted me to conclude that she was out of her league and should leave the ticket -- was awful precisely because Palin couldn't explain anything. For whatever reason, she couldn't even speak coherently.
The debate format clearly worked better for her because she could control her message and keep pounding well-rehearsed talking points. Does that mean she's ready to lead the free world should circumstances warrant?
That question remains. Right next to same question about Barack Obama.