Sen. Joe Biden won, yet Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin did not lose.
That's because the bar was set so low for this year's only vice presidential debate. All either candidate had to do was walk across it. Scoring would be based on which candidate would make the fewest mistakes.
Democrat Biden, long known for excessive gab and occasional gaffes, exceeded expectations in a debate for which expectations were exceedingly low. He won on substance. That was no surprise. He's been in the Senate since Palin was in grade school. He knows a lot of stuff.
But substance is not enough to win presidential debates that essentially are television shows, largely aimed at persuading still-undecided voters. Many of these voters choose candidates based less on detailed issues than on which one seems "just like me, only maybe not quite as cool."
As a result, despite having "Washington Week in Review" host Gwen Ifill as its moderator, this TV show felt more like a political version of "Jeopardy." A Democrat with a reputation for talking too much meets a Republican with a reputation for knowing too little.
That was Palin. She had something to prove, even to Republicans, after her stumbles in national TV interviews. The world wanted to know not only how she would answer questions but also whether she could.
Palin had to prove she was worthy of remaining Sen. John McCain's running mate, despite her awkward answers and non-answers to interview questions.
In her interview with CBS anchor Katie Couric, for example, she said she read newspapers but, when pressed, could not name one.
When asked which Supreme Court decisions she opposed, besides the Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision, she rambled without mentioning any. Maybe it was simply nerves that caused her to forget the Supreme Court decision about the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. She criticized that in TV interviews only a few months ago. Still many wondered if the young governor was ready for the national spotlight.
Between Couric and debate night in St. Louis, someone must have reminded the former TV sportscaster and Miss Alaska runner-up of an old broadcast industry adage: People may not hear all that you say, but they'll always remember how you said it. This time she turned on her 40-megawatt smile powerfully enough to charm the rust off a minivan.
She put a twinkle in her talk with sprinkles of aw-shucks cutesy folksy nuggets like, "I betcha" and "heck of a lot" and "Main Streeters like me" what she and McCain were "gonna do" when they get to Washington.
Mainly she cheerfully repeated the same basic talking points, barely rephrasing them each time. The key words included "maverick" to describe McCain and herself and "same old politics" to describe Obama and Biden. Her cheerful responses, punctuated by eyewinks once or twice, had an oddly poll-tested flavor to them.
When she did not have a rehearsed answer, she simply ignored the question Ifill or Biden asked and responded to some other question she preferred to ask herself.
Not that she didn't warn us. She announced with bold audacity at the outset that she just might not respond to Ifill or Biden because she was "gonna talk right to the American people." You betcha.
In the end, she sounded pleased with her hijacking of the agenda. "I like being able to answer these tough questions without the filter, even, of the mainstream media kind of telling viewers what they've just heard," she said to a mainstream-media television camera.
"I'd rather be able to just speak to the American people like we just did," she said. Sure. Who wouldn't like to govern without having to answer to those pesky reporters and their pesky follow-up questions.
Next to Palin's game-show perkiness, Biden seemed almost quaint and old-fashioned. He actually stuck to issues. He waged a withering attack on trickle-down economics and eloquently eviscerated McCain-Palin's "maverick" pose as skillfully as she might kill and field dress a moose.
He outlined encouraging proposals to bring economic recovery and affordable health care, at long last, to middle class Americans. He avoided gaffes and excessive gab and articulated his party's sense of purpose. But this was Palin's night to win or, at least, avoid losing.
For all the hoopla surrounding vice presidential debates, history shows they don't have much effect on the guys or, someday, women at the top of their tickets. This year could be different. Whether she wins the White House for McCain or not, she gave his supporters a little less reason to feel embarrassed.