Media speculation swirled prior to the vice presidential debate Thursday evening: Would Alaska Governor Sarah Palin make an egregious error on the economy or foreign policy? Would Sen. Joe Biden (D., Del.) hurt himself trying too hard to hammer his less experienced opponent?

Neither scenario occurred. Instead, the debate resulted in awkward exchanges where the two VP candidates predictably defended their running mates, took potshots at policy proposals, and tried desperately to stay on message. The economy stood out as the top issue.

The debate was a bit bizarre. First of all, Biden appeared to have orders not to attack Palin overtly, preferring to follow a preset strategy of putting President Bush and Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) together as a package. The lack of a direct attack on Palin frustrated Biden. He tried to cover it up by constantly smiling, which then turned into strange smirks.

Palin had problems, too. Like an Alaskan moose caught in headlights, she early on stared stiffly into the camera as if trying very hard to recall prepared talking points. As she slowly settled down, she managed to avoid major gaffes and gained confidence. This translated into a more passionate defense of her positions.

Biden was the winner on points. He consistently did a better job of answering the questions from moderator, Gwenn Ifill of PBS, by making substantive statements on facts and policy. Clearly, Palin performed better than expected. But she often dodged difficult questions and answered repetitively.

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