World and Nation

With High Stakes and Low Expectations, Palin Survives

Gov. Sarah Palin made it through the vice-presidential debate on Thursday without doing any obvious damage to the Republican presidential ticket. By surviving her encounter with Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and quelling some of the talk about her basic qualifications for high office, she may even have done Sen. John McCain a bit of good, freeing him to focus on the other troubles shadowing his campaign.

It was not a tipping point for the embattled Republican presidential ticket, the bad night that many Republicans had feared. But neither did it constitute the turning point the McCain campaign was looking for after a weeks-long stretch in which Sen. Barack Obama seemed to be gaining the upper hand in the race. Even if he no longer has to be on the defensive about Palin, McCain still faces a tough environment with barely a month until the election, as he acknowledged hours before the debate by effectively pulling his campaign out of Michigan, a Democratic state where McCain’s advisers had once been optimistic of victory.

“This is going to help stop the bleeding,” said Todd Harris, a Republican consultant who worked for McCain in his first presidential campaign. “But this alone won’t change the trend line, particularly in some of the battleground states.”

Short of a complete bravura performance that would have been tough for even the most experienced national politician to turn in — or a devastating error by the mistake-prone Biden, who instead turned in an impressively sharp performance — there might have been little Palin could have done to help McCain.

The McCain campaign has grimly confronted a series of polls since the presidential debate last week showing Obama gaining a lead not only nationally, but in battleground states. The significance of Obama’s huge financial advantage has come clear as he has forced McCain to fight in what should be Republican states, like Missouri, and thus make the kind of triage decisions like the one he made in Michigan.

The economic problems on Wall Street have posed a severe problem for McCain, moving the presidential debate to precisely the ground that favors Democrats, and Biden sought repeatedly during the debate to lay the problem at the doorstep of the Republican Party. And even if a financial rescue plan is approved by Congress, there is no reason to think that the bad economic news is going to stop: with reports of bleak unemployment numbers, more gyrations of the stock market, and the prospect of bad economic reports on everything from job losses to automobile sales.

“For more than a year, people assumed that if Obama was the Democratic nominee, the campaign would be a referendum on him,” Harris said. “The economic crisis changed that: the campaign is now a referendum on who can get us out of this mess. One of the challenges for the McCain campaign is going to be turn the race back into an up-or-down referendum on Obama.”

And through this period — easily the worst one McCain has faced since he was forced to lay off most of his campaign staff more than a year ago when he ran out of money — McCain has appeared off balance. He has been searching for a message and a way to make a case against Obama, and often publicly venting his frustration at the way the campaign is going, as he did this week in a contentious meeting with the editorial board of The Des Moines Register.