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Analysis: Palin gets back on track, but Biden wins debate

  • Story Highlights
  • Fifty-one percent of debate watchers say Biden did best job, CNN poll says
  • Eighty-four percent of debate watchers said Palin did better than expected
  • Biden more likely to bring change, according to 53 percent of debate watchers
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By Mark Preston
CNN Political Editor
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ST. LOUIS, Missouri (CNN) -- Sarah Palin stared criticism straight in the face Thursday, telling opponent Joe Biden and moderator Gwen Ifill that she would answer questions and address issues on her own terms during the vice presidential debate.

"I may not answer the question the way you want to hear, but I'll talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record," Palin said.

Since being picked as Republican presidential nominee John McCain's running mate, Palin has been under fire for not being accessible enough to the media and delivering tightly scripted speeches during campaign appearances.

Palin did not veer off-course during the 90-minute debate, but her stand on principle appeared to hurt her, according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. Poll of debate watchers.

Only 26 percent of those surveyed said that Palin was more intelligent in the debate, compared with 57 percent who chose Biden, according to the poll of 611 adult Americans who tuned in to watch it. The poll had a sampling error of 4 percentage points. Watch the world's reaction to the Biden-Palin battle »

Overall, 51 percent of the debate watchers said that Biden did the best job in the debate, but 36 percent gave the nod to Palin. iReport.com: Who do you think won?

However, the Alaska governor, who repeatedly sought to emphasize the maverick credentials of the McCain-Palin ticket, overcame expectations, as 84 percent of the debate watchers said she did better than expected. Watch entire debate: Video Part 1 » | Video Part 2 » | Video Part 3 »

Heading into the debate, both Republicans and Democrats said that Palin needed to convey to voters that she understood the problems they face every day, which have been exacerbated in recent weeks by the financial crisis. She met her match in Biden, who went toe-to-toe with her when discussing the problems of everyday people. While Palin talked about her hometown of Wasilla, Alaska, Biden countered with Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Claymont, Delaware.

For Biden, Democratic and Republican strategists said it was essential that he direct his fire at McCain and stay clear of being overly aggressive in his criticism of Palin.

The debate watchers polled by CNN said that by a 7-point margin -- 43 percent to 36 percent -- Biden spent more time attacking the opponent. Still, fears of the Delaware senator being overly aggressive never came to fruition and certainly did not hurt him when it came down to the bottom line: who won the debate.

The conclusions of those surveyed in the CNN poll cannot be welcome news for the McCain-Palin campaign, but Republicans have to be happy with Palin's performance, which was gaffe-free even as it was short on substance. Full coverage of the debates

The theme of the debate was change as Palin and Biden sought to convince voters that they would shake up the status quo in Washington, a popular theme as approval ratings for the president and Congress are dismally low.

On this point, Biden, a 35-year veteran of the Senate, was more successful in selling this message. Fifty-three percent of debate watchers said Biden seemed more likely to bring change; 42 percent chose Palin.

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Another troubling number for Palin is that only 46 percent of the debate watchers said she was qualified to be president, compared with 87 percent who picked Biden. Grade the candidates' performance in the debate

However, Republicans can take solace in knowing that a vice presidential nominee does not win or lose a presidential election. Palin will continue to be embraced by conservatives and, perhaps, even energize them more in the closing weeks of the campaign.

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