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Palin brings her folksy tone to debate

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  • On mortgage crisis, Palin says, "Darn right, it was the predator lenders"
  • She advises people ask parents at a soccer game if they want feel for economy
  • Former opponent: "She clearly has a very canny ability to connect with people"
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(CNN) -- Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin set the tone for how she would approach Thursday night's vice presidential debate before it began.

Meeting Democratic rival Sen. Joe Biden at center stage to shake his hand as they walked out, she greeted him warmly and said, "Nice to meet you. Hey, can I call you Joe?"

For most of the rest of the 90-minute debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, the Republican nominee answered like that next-door-neighbor hockey mom who just happens to be running for vice president.

She sometimes seemed short on specifics and long on folksiness, as she aimed to appeal to what she called the heartland of America. She spoke of people who know what it's like to worry about not having health insurance, a worry she and her husband once shared.

"I'll betcha," Palin said in answering the first question, urging anyone who wants to get a barometer on the economy to "go to a kids' soccer game on Saturday and turn to any parent there on the sideline."

"Bless their hearts," she said in another answer. iReport.com: Did Palin knock it out of the park?

On the cause of the mortgage crisis: "Darn right, it was the predator lenders."

About tax cuts: "Darn right, we need tax relief for Americans."

Those who have debated Palin before were not surprised.

"She clearly has a very canny ability to connect with people. What she says. How she says it. And her body language," said former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat whom Palin defeated in 2006, about the dozen times he debated her. "But she has shown very little interest or knowledge of policy. She goes for slogans."

Andrew Halcro, former Alaska state representative and a Republican who ran for governor as an independent in 2006, reckons he debated her about two dozen times.

"She spoke a lot in platitudes, in populist tones," Halcro recalled. "What I call glittering generalities."

Halcro didn't see anything different Thursday night.

"She held her own by, in a number of those questions, not answering the question," he said Thursday night. "What were the quality of her answers? That's filling 45 seconds, but it's not saying a lot."

For the course of the debate, Palin and Biden were friendly and cordial, often looking at each other when they talked.

There were no instances of the more-experienced Biden seeming to patronize Palin, as happened in the 1984 debate between then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro.

"Let me help you with the difference, Mrs. Ferraro, between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon," Bush said at one point.

Ferraro fired back: "Let me just say first of all, that I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy."

Palin did not answer a number of the questions put before her, instead returning to her main talking points: cutting taxes, reigning in government spending and making the United States energy independent.

"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 early in the debate.

Palin had miscues, sometimes mangling the wording in her sentences or calling someone by the wrong name. She referred to Gen. David McKiernan, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, as "McClellan." Another time, she referred to Biden as "O'Biden."

Palin also seemed to have a prerehearsed sound bite she was waiting to use.

"Say it ain't so, Joe. There you go again, pointing backwards again," she said toward the end of the debate. "Now, doggone it, let's look ahead and tell Americans what we have to plan to do for them in the future."

Still, many pundits gave her a passing grade.

"She did pretty well for what she had to do, which is to be thought of as a possible vice president without being laughed at," said Professor Richard Cohen of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Her job was to make up for her deficiencies in prior instances in which she looked unqualified and incompetent."

Palin had received criticism after recent television interviews with CBS' Katie Couric, when she stumbled through her answers to questions about foreign policy, Supreme Court rulings and which newspapers she reads.

Her answers regarding Russia and the congressional bailout bill have reverberated throughout the blogosphere and turned Palin into a punch line on "Saturday Night Live."

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, also said she helped herself Thursday night.

"Expectations were very low for Palin, and she exceeded them," Sabato said. "She didn't win, but she didn't lose. People tuned in to see a car crash, and there wasn't one -- on either side."

Susan MacManus, a politics professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, also thought Palin did well enough. Asked to score Palin on a scale of 1-10, MacManus said, "For what she was intending to do, a seven."

Neither Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama nor Republican challenger Sen. John McCain attended the debate.

In the end, observers said, the debate did not change much.

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"This debate will be forgotten by next week," Sabato said. "As usual, the VP candidates won't matter much in the final result. The status quo (that favors Obama since he's ahead) has been preserved."

This was the only vice presidential debate. Obama and McCain are scheduled to debate twice more before the November 4 general election: October 7 at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, and October 15 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.

CNN's Arthur Brice contributed to this report.

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