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About Karl Smyth

Karl Smyth holds a MA in American Literature and a BA in Economics from University College Dublin. He is currently an editorial intern with openUSA.

Articles by Karl Smyth

This week’s front page editor

Constitutional conventions: best practice

Smoke over the Vatican

update: the BBC's North American editor Justin Webb has since blogged about this subject here 

Reports emanating from Italian sources earlier this week suggesting that the Vatican has effectively vetoed three of President Barack Obama's nominees to fill the vacant role of United States Ambassador to the Holy See--based on their liberal views on issues such as abortion and stem cell research--may signal the beginning of a cooling in US-Vatican relations under the Obama administration.

Jindal only offers more of the same

On paper, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal would appear to be the perfect candidate to help shepherd the Republican Party out of its post-election mire. A Rhodes scholar of Indian descent, who became the youngest governor in the country upon assuming office in 2007 at the age of 36, Jindal possesses the intellect, youth, and philosophical outlook to both satisfy the whims of the party's base and court the interest of young and non-white voters--demographic groups which the GOP has been haemorrhaging to the Democrats in recent election cycles.

As such, it should come as no real surprise that the Republican leadership saw it fit to hand Jindal the fillip of presenting the party's official televised rebuttal to President Barack Obama's first speech to Congress: a perfect opportunity to introduce himself to a national audience, articulate a distinct vision for America's present and future, and lay the foundations for an already-mooted presidential run in less than four years' time.

However, if Tuesday's address truly was the first litmus test of a potential Jindal candidacy, then perhaps he would be better off sticking to his pledge (made on last week's edition of 'Meet the Press') to focus solely on getting re-elected as governor in 2011.

Jindal's performance has drawn widespread criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike, and rightly so. With the country in the midst of a historically unprecedented economic implosion, and its citizens eagerly looking towards their democracy's political elders for both leadership and solace, the Louisiana governor comprehensively failed to substantively address the Presidential speech that preceded him, or perhaps more importantly discuss the topic of the economic crisis itself in a meaningful or engaging way.

Instead, the GOP's spokesman chose to deliver an oft-heard and well-trodden diatribe on why Republicans favoured a diminutive role for the state in government, punctuated with a catchphrase--"Americans can do anything"--which undoubtedly appeared rousing on paper but was sapped of any inspirational potency by Jindal's awkward, uneven and surprisingly unpolished delivery.

At a time when the vast majority of Americans now face uncertainty and trepidation on a daily basis due to the current economic crisis, those looking towards the Republican Party for leadership or solace on Tuesday night must have been sorely disappointed. The entire country has just experienced a two-year presidential race that was publicized and scrutinized to its last breath by the media--does the GOP really believe that there's anyone in the country in doubt as to what each party stands for? Do they think that voter confusion was the root of John McCain's defeat in the fall? Bipartisan governance is strongly desired by the electorate now more than ever--why shun the possibility of co-operation and return instead to the tired talking points of the last eight years at the very first opportunity?

While Jindal's performance was poor, the content of his message also deserves much criticism. Yes, there is need for stringent oversight on such a large and contrived spending package as the one in question to avoid a return to the pork-barrel politics that has become synonymous with Washington, unquestionably. However, if the Republican Party want to follow Barack Obama's lead and turn this theme into a communications strategy that really resonates with the American people, they first need to dilute down their obvious distaste for large, centralized government. There is an appetite across the developed world for an expanded fiscal role for government that only the most serious of crises can create: however inconvenient it may be, Republicans ignore this sentiment at their peril.

Governor Jindal's speech on Tuesday night did nothing to dispel the perception among liberals and conservatives alike that the Republican Party has become a party lacking in ideas. If anything, it should have sent alarm bells ringing within the party, and forced many who watched it to reconsider whether the comparisons frequently made between Jindal and President Obama are rooted more in superficiality than substance.

The peril of parodying Obama

Last week, Carol Thatcher unwittingly illustrated how an archaic word from a different generation retains much of its racially-charged potency to this day - and rightly drew condemnation for it. This week, it was the turn of imagery to dredge up the unseemly spectre of the past.

A storm of publicity has gathered around the offices of the New York Post, after a cartoon published in Wednesday's edition of the newspaper - depicting the author of the recently-approved economic stimulus as a dead, crazed chimpanzee - was accused of being a not so subtle exercise in jingoism by both commentators in the media and civil rights activists.

Speaking to the media, Reverend Al Sharpton declared that "the cartoon in today's New York Post is troubling at best given the historic racist attacks of African-Americans as being synonymous with monkeys."

"One has to question whether the cartoonist is making a less than casual reference to this when in the cartoon they have police saying after shooting a chimpanzee that ‘Now they will have to find someone else to write the stimulus bill,'" he added.

A press release was quickly issued by the newspaper, defending its cartoon as "a clear parody of a current news event" - the shooting dead by police of a chimpanzee in Connecticut on Monday after the creature mauled its owner's friend - and denouncing Rev. Sharpton for being "nothing more than a publicity opportunist."

However, with the furore over the cartoon refusing to abate, and a group of protestors converging on the newspaper's headquarters, the Post softened its stance in a Friday editorial, saying that "to those who were offended by the image, we apologise."

Whether simply a poorly executed sketch that was misconstrued - as the Guardian's USA blog rightly points out, the author of the stimulus package referenced in the cartoon would be the Democratic congressional leadership, not President Obama himself - or something more sinister, the controversy surrounding Sean Delonas's work highlights an interesting dilemma: the challenge now facing the professional satirists whose job it is to subvert the image of the first African-American president of the United States.

Distorting facial features as a means of highlighting the excesses and frailties of our public figures has been a staple of political satirists' trade in the western press since Thomas Nast's pioneering work during the Tammany Hall era, providing some iconic and enduring images: from the defiance of Winston Churchill's bulldoggish scowl to, more recently, Tony Blair's unnervingly large and perfectly-formed dentures and the increasingly simian features of George W Bush.

However, as highlighted recently in an article on the Huffington Post, cartoonists in the American press now find themselves in unchartered waters, as they try to tread an increasingly thin line between caricature and stereotype when penning their work: draw President Obama's lips too large, or his ears too big, and an artist may inadvertently face the same charges of racism and xenophobia levelled at the New York Post this week.

As CNN columnist Roland S. Martin succinctly put it: "What could be seen as silly humour if President George W Bush were in the White House has to be seen through the lens of America's racist past."

Tell Rall, president of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists, summed up the difficulty this paradigmatic moment in American history has invariably posed for his organisations' members, noting that, "without a doubt, people are stepping more gingerly. People are tiptoeing their way through this."

The alarm bells should have sounded for many during the general election. Seeking to poke fun at the right-wing media's continued chatter over Obama's "true" religious beliefs and purported affiliation with terrorist organisations, The New Yorker magazine placed on its front cover a depiction of Obama and his wife standing in the Oval Office: replete with turban, salwar kameez, camouflage pants and an AK-47 rifle. The cartoon, while playing on the issue of religion rather than race, was quickly rounded upon by critics who believed it reinforced popular misconceptions about the Democratic candidate - including his own campaign, which denounced it as "tasteless and offensive."

With more than 45 months left in President Obama's tenure, it seems inevitable this issue will arise again; particularly given that interest groups such as the NAACP are set to become even more vigilant in their monitoring of the media's output after this week's incident.

Consequently, political cartoonists now face the unenviable challenge of marrying outrageous and provocative iconography with political correctness: a damning restriction of free speech, which may, ironically, provoke a self-fulfilling creative backlash that results in the production of more vitriolic and jingoistic works.

As decorated American cartoonist Jules Feiffer noted, "outside of basic intelligence, there is nothing more important to a good political cartoonist than ill will." American political cartoonists are starting to get tetchy.

"If it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press"

It appears that MSNBC may have finally made their much-anticipated decision as to who will succeed the late Tim Russert as the next host of Meet the Press: the most watched Sunday talk show in America and the longest-running television show in broadcast history. In an article posted Monday, The Huffington Post is reporting with some confidence that David Gregory has seen off stiff competition to land the coveted anchor role when Tom Brokaw's run as interim host wraps up in January.

While widely respected within the media world, and viewed by many as a rising star, the prospect of Gregory being handed the keys to arguably NBC's most prized broadcasting possession has actually appeared increasingly slim in recent months. Unable to carve out a slot for himself amongst MSNBC's stellar cast of polemicists, Gregory found himself saddled with Race for the White House in March of this year: a bland panel show covering the American presidential race that clearly lacked a creative direction and suffered from its tendency to recycle talking heads chosen largely from MSNBC's own in-house pool of talent. The decision to renew the show into the New Year--under the revised and equally uninspiring moniker 1600 Pennsylvania Drive--only cast further doubt as to whether Gregory would ultimately be handed an opportunity by the network to truly shine.

However, the decision to choose Gregory over flashier and more high profile candidates such as Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow is a huge vote of confidence for the Los Angeles native--and one that is justly deserved. Having engaged in a number of fiery exchanges with members of the Bush administration--the President himself included--while a member of the White House press corps, Gregory has quickly carved out a reputation for possessing excellent journalistic instincts, a rare ability to clearly identify "the story behind the story," and a tenacious and unrelenting style of interrogative pursuit: assets that would all mesh perfectly with the format of the highly decorated Sunday talk show.

Moreover, by choosing Gregory over Matthews and company--the pioneers of MSNBC's newfound strategy of jettisoning objectivity for opinion, which has seen the network mimic Fox News's rating success at the cost of drawing strong criticism during the presidential campaign season--MSNBC executives would ensure that the reputation of one of the few last great bastion's of balanced objectivity within the American third estate remains intact. Anyone who questions whether such an edifying description is truly merited need only look at Colin Powell's decision to announce his endorsement of Barack Obama's candidacy on the show a few weeks ago--and the almost country-wide outpouring of grief following Russert's death in June of this year

The week of pragmatic transition

The significance of the transition period for an incoming presidential administration cannot be overstated: not only does it offer the opportunity for the President-elect to identify the priorities within his or her legislative and policy agenda for the forthcoming term, but it also represents the first true test of managerial acumen at the highest governmental level; just ask Bill Clinton, who endured a number of early and largely self-inflicted blows to his executive authority as a result of tardy mobilization and ill-judged selections for his supporting cast (cf. Zoe Baird).

As such, the actions of the Obama transition team in the coming weeks should not be observered merely for the sake of palace intrigue. Instead, like a candidate's general election campaign, transition offers a fleeting glimpse as to how well prepared a future Obama administration is to meet the challenges ahead, while at the same time acting as a rough indicator as to what the President-elect's advisers believe are the key issues that need to be addressed internally between now and January 20th 2009. Over the brief but fervent period of time that has elapsed since Obama's electoral victory, I would suggest that the following has rung true:

2006: McCain 510-Obama 28

The Huffington Post is carrying an intriguing story regarding a survey conducted exactly two years ago by polling company SurveyNow, gauging the balance of voter support across the country in the event of a hypothetical Barack Obama-John McCain presidential showdown in 2008.

Interviewing 600 voters in each state, SurveyUSA was able to extrapolate that an Obama candidacy would take Illinois, Hawaii and the District of Columbia-and that's it. This would have left him with a grand total of 28 total electoral votes, and culminated in a landslide victory for John McCain.

If Howard Wilson was right in his assertion that a week is a long time in politics, then this should prove ample evidence that two years is a very very long time indeed.

2006 SurveyUSA Electoral College Map

2008: The fifth 'pivot point' in US history?

Given that the barriers of race and gender have been progressively eroded throughout the prolonged campaign season, many people have argued that this year's general election is something extraordinary by most measures.

For Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar, however, the 2008 election represents a potentially profound turning-point in American history.

As Richard Reeves reports, the New York Historical Society recently hosted a conference entitled "Do Elections Matter?" To kick-off the event, Amar put forth his thesis that the United States has experienced four "pivot point" elections in the 219 years since the founding fathers forged the country's constitution: 1800, 1860, 1932, and either 1968 or 1980.

In each case, Amar argued, socio-historical forces conspired to ensure that the outcome of each election shaped the direction of the country and the dynamics of its politics for generations to come.

For example, Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson defeated Federalist John Adams in 1800, and over the next six decades the foundations for the Democratic Party in its current form began to emerge; Abraham Lincoln's victory in 1860 marked the beginning of Republican dominance well into the next century; FDR and the socialist New Deal Democrats set the agenda for much of the post-War era; finally, Nixon's presidency (or Reagan's, depending on your personal perspective) coincided with a golden era for conservatives, which now appears to be steadily waning.

A crucial catalyst to these elections all having the impact on the direction of American society  that they did is that they all occured against a backdrop of three important trends: economic decline, over-reactive wars, or a climate of paranoia based on perceived enemies abroad which subsequently results in the repression of civil liberties at home.

As Amar points out, these very issues resonate as strongly in this year's election as the four pivot point elections that preceded it--given the recent economic meltdown in Wall Street and looming recession on Main Street, the high cost and unpopularity of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars amongst the general public, and the repeal of a number of civil liberties via legislative measures, deemed necessary as part of President Bush's ‘War on Terror'. Consequently, in years to come we may expect to see the 2008 presidential election prove as influential an electoral event as these aforementioned elections.

While Amar's thesis is intriguing--if perhaps a little too quick to dismiss victories from figures such as Wilson, Carter and Clinton as arberrations simply because they polled below the 50 percent threshold--it also reflects a belief increasingly expressed by members of the media and academia alike that this year's election will bring a pronounced and quite profound sea-change in the social and political landscape in American culture.

More significantly however, in contrast to what Democrats and many members of the media may say, Amar's thesis suggests that this seismic historical shift will not nescessarily be on the condition of an Obama victory on November 4th.

Howard Dean's "Democratic revolution"?

In a piece noting how Howard Dean's career has turned around since becoming Democratic National Committee Chairman, J. Patrick Coolican argues that the Democrats' bright electoral fortunes in the past couple years are a clear validation of the "fifty state strategy" Dean himself launched in 2005.

By allowing candidates to move closer to the centre over issues such as gun control and abortion rights in certain areas of the country, Coolican argues, the Democrats have become far more competitive across the United States; moreover, Coolican suggests that "Republicans better find themselves a Howard Dean, and fast" if they want to arrest the slow bleed from red to blue that is expected to continue at polling booths next week.

While Coolican is right to praise Dean's energetic stewardship of the Democratic Party in the past three years, and his protracted efforts to court conservative voters, I would be hesitant to suggest - as Coolican strongly implies - that we are witnessing or are on the cusp of some kind of "Democratic Revolution" similar to the one masterminded by Newt Gingrich and his GOP peers in 1994.

Unquestionably, the Democrats are likely to reap even greater electoral spoils in the House and Senate, and are tantalisingly close to securing an overall majority in both. However, is this surge of support fuelled by some enthralling ideological vision for the future outlined by the Democratic leadership, or a substantive legislative and policy agenda serving as a roadmap to traverse the difficult times ahead?

The GOP's return to McCarthyism

The communist witch-hunt headed by Senator Joe McCarthy in the late 1940s and early 1950s represents one of the darkest periods in American history: an era of frenzied paranoia and suspicion, when distrust and intolerance ran rife throughout many spectrums of American society. That this atmosphere was carefully and deliberately cultivated by senior elected figures, hell-bent on purging what they perceived as the subversive invasion of Communist influences across the nation at the expense of destroying innocent people's lives and reputation in the process, has made it all the more regrettable and reprehensible.

It was this spectre of fear mongering that resonated in the words of Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann during her interview (found here) with MSNBC's Chris Matthews on Friday's edition of Hardball. In the interview, Bachmann sought to draw a clear connection between liberal politics, the Left, and anti-Americanism while espousing the usual talking points regarding Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright that McCain surrogates and attack ads have regurgitated in recent days. As Bachmann argued:

"If we look at the collection of friends that Barack Obama has had in his life, it calls into question what Barack Obama's true beliefs and values and thoughts are. His attitudes, values, and beliefs with Jeremiah Wright on his view of the United States-is negative; Bill Ayers, his negative view of the United States. We have seen one friend after another call into question his judgment-but also, what it is that Barack Obama really believes?"

Unfortunately for Bachmann, she clearly didn't have the sufficient intellectual flexibility to weave this charge in a coherent argument, and given sufficient rope to hang herself by Matthews, she suggested that that the American media take a "great look" at the current Congress and investigate how many of its members are "anti-American" as opposed to "pro-American."

It should come as no surprise that Bachmann's performance has drawn sharp criticism from the Democats, and has prompted a campaign to censure her behaviour. The introduction of such a simplistic and politically charged dichotomy into the final weeks of this race, however innocous or ill-crafted, represents an alarming and totally inappropriate reversion of the McCarthyite politics of half a century ago. Whether Bachmann's charge was sanctioned by the McCain camp is moot: this particularly distatestful attack is a direct product of the negativity which has become a mainstay of GOP electoral strategy in recent election cycles, and is a strong indictment of what Peggy Noonan referred to this week as a trend within the Republican Party towards promoting a "new vulgarization" of American politics.

The Supreme Court and the candidates

The impact the result of this year's general election will have on the activism of the United States Supreme Court in the years to come has been all too frequently overlooked and underappreciated by political commentators based outside of America.

However, with three Justices likely to vacate the bench in the near or immediate future, and with divisive issues such as abortion rights, affirmative action, and campaign finance reform all likely to come under the Supreme Court's scrutiny sooner rather than later, the next American president will find himself in a prime position to solidy or shift the current ideological composition of the Court will his choice of replacements.

As such, as Herman Schwartz from the Nation discusses in detail, the choice voters make at the ballot box in November will have repercussions for future generations of Americans in the realm of social values equally if not more profound as the economic legacy which will inevitably follow the current volatility in the financial markets.

This debate matters most

Those of us who are expecting some last minute drama to emerge from tonight's debate - the third act of what so far has been a relatively lacklustre piece of political theatre - will be sorely disappointed.

There will be no sharp quips or witty sound bytes that leave an indelible imprint on the memory of those who watch at home, or lofty ideas that seem to crystallize in front of our very eyes by virtue of their sheer simplicity and allure. The stilted and excruciatingly restrictive nature of America's presidential debates, combined with the tendency engrained in both candidates to frame and shape their arguments in a perambulatory and occasionally labyrinthine style of rhetoric, will take care of that.

Similarly, those hoping that McCain will somehow pull-out a final trump card, throw a political "Hail Mary" - or one of the plethora of other euphemisms typically employed by commentators in recent days to describe a man desperately searching for a way to postpone his slide into the political abyss - need to reconcile themselves with the cold, hard reality of this year's campaign.

Why Troopergate matters

The continued salience of the financial market meltdown may mean that the intensity of the media's spotlight will not burn quite as bright, or be as probing, as in previous weeks; nor does the nature of the crime appear sufficiently severe to force John McCain to make a potentially disastrous last-minute change to the Republican presidential ticket. However, there is no doubt that the findings yesterday of the Alaskan legislature into the 'Troopergate' affair hold pronounced political repercussions that will stretch far beyond the boundaries of the Land of the Midnight Sun - and which may ultimately serve as the final death-knell of a presidential campaign that in recent days has looked increasingly frustrated and bereft of ideas.

The damage the Troopergate report has already done to the Republican presidential bid and will prove to do in the days to come is multi-faceted: first, since her unveiling as the Republican vice presidential nominee, one of the central strategies of the McCain camp in assuaging concerns over Palin's obvious inexperience has been to portray her as a Washington outsider who would repeat the same sweeping, take-no-prisoners style of executive reform she achieved during her time as mayor of Wasilla and governor of Alaska.

That the Republicans have struggled to elaborate how Palin would "bring change to Washington" has proven largely inconsequential: as the success of Barack Obama's campaign illustrated so vividly in the primaries, such a message holds strong resonance with an electorate that has bestowed upon the current Congress the worst right track/wrong track poll ratings in American history. However, now tainted with the charge of impropriety, the McCain-Palin ticket has had the credibility of this proposition seriously undermined, and now faces an uphill struggle in selling the Alaskan native as the implacable and unyielding purifying force that the American bureaucracy badly needs to purge it of its excesses.

Moreover, while the campaign has been eager to highlight some of Palin's accomplishments in executive office (reigning in budgetary deficits, energy legislation) and exaggerate others (foreign policy experience), the most thorough investigation into the inner-workings of a Palin administration has produced a portrait of an executive characterized by Time's Michael Scherer as "shockingly amateurish" in its conduct throughout the affair. It raises serious questions about the Alaskan's ability to effectively manage her own executive, let alone the highest in the land.

Troopergate report condemns Palin

A 263-page report released yesterday by the Alaskan legislature has concluded that Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin personally exerted pressure in her capacity as Governor of Alaska to get Trooper Michael Wooten dismissed, while at the same time allowing both her husband and aides to press for his firing, based on his attitude and previous disciplinary problems.

Concluding that Palin's lobbying was a clear violation of the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act, the committee's report stated that "such impermissible and repeated contacts create conflicts of interests for subordinate employees who must choose to either please a superior or run the risk of facing that superior's displeasure and the possible consequences of that displeasure."

While the Legislature may choose to subsequently censure Palin for her behaviour, or impose a fine of up to $5,000, the political fallout from the report's findings could prove far more damaging - particularly given the amount of political capital spent by the Republican party in a failed attempt to delay the report's release until after the general election.

Presidential transition and planning for the great beyond

While the result of this year's presidential election remains far from conclusive, the complex reality of making the transition from one administration to another at the upper echelon of American politics means that the gears have already been set in motion behind the scenes in Washington.

In an executive order signed today, the White House has created a Presidential Transition Coordinating Council-chaired by Chief of Staff Joshua Bolton and composed of a broad spectrum of representatives from within the executive branch-to begin liaising with and preparing both the Democratic and Republican camps for their potential ascendancy to the highest office in the land on 20 January 2009. As the White House press secretary Dana Perino noted, "It has probably never been more critical that a transition from an administration from one to the next is as seamless as possible. Our nation is at war. We are dealing with a financial crisis. And we are trying to protect ourselves from terrorist attacks."

Interestingly, today's announcement coincides with an article penned by Sam Stein of the Huffington Post yesterday which revealed that the McCain campaign is lagging well behind Obama's in terms of both its readiness to succeed the current administration and the resources they are prepared to commit to it prior to election day - due predominantly to the wishes of McCain himself. Stein's article cites sources both within McCain's inner circle and from previous transition teams who have voiced concern with the Arizona Senator's approach, contrasting as it does with Obama's methodical division of nearly one hundred people into working groups in recent weeks to produce policy agendas and potential governmental appointees.

Such contrasting organisational approaches seem strikingly endemic of how both candidates have handled their respective campaigns throughout the race, given Obama's very professional strategic mobilisation of grassroots support during the primary season and McCain's almost myopic tendency in recent weeks for short-term gambles designed solely to achieve victory to the detriment of greater cohesion and security in the long-run (e.g. Palin's selection as VP, suspending campaigning during the financial bailout, etc.).

Michigan pullout underscores bleak electoral college picture for McCain

John McCain's decision on Wednesday to pull out of Michigan--a state which Democrat John Kerry edged with a margin of just over 3 percentage points in 2004 and was highly sought after by GOP strategists in the build-up to this year's election cycle--illustrates the increasingly bleak electoral college picture facing the Republican presidential nominee with just 31 days of campaigning left until polling day. Of the thirteen competitive states widely identified prior to this year's election as being pivotal to either candidate's hopes of success--Michigan, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin--Barack Obama currently holds strong leads in 6 and is polling ahead but within the margin of error in another 5; McCain, in contrast, leads Obama by no more than 2 percentage points in both Indiana and Missouri.

While the Republican exodus in the Wolverine state will invariably free up resources and staff for use in more tightly fought races in North Carolina and nearby Ohio, failure to transform these assets into tangible and substantive strategic gains within the coming weeks would mean that, as it currently stands, McCain faces the prospect of emerging from the aforementioned battleground states with a paltry 22 electoral votes out of a possible 168--a defeat so comprehensive that it would all but guarantee a Democratic victory.

The reaction to McCain's announcement amongst local operatives, both Democrat and within his own party, has so far proven mixed: concerned about the morale amongst advocates still campaigning on the Republican's behalf, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson noted that, "when the general leaves the battle field when the fight's still going it creates a lot of chaos." The decision also drew similar criticism from the chairman of the state party, Saul Anuzis. Fearing that McCain's departure would only serve as a catalyst for third party surrogates to fill the void with an array of attack ads, Democratic spokesman Lt. Governor John D. Cherry was more measured in his response, saying that, "I think the announcement you're reading is an invitation for independent groups to come in and do that sort of thing."

The Boston Globe and Huffington Post, meanwhile, are speculating that McCain's decision may signal the first of several pullouts, given that the Republican faces similarly sizeable polling deficits in states with far more costly media markets, such as Pennsylvania.

Obama-Biden camp plays the expectations game

Given Sarah Palin's recent string of media blunders-dubbed by insiders in the McCain campaign as a "borderline disaster"-it comes as no surprise that the Democrats are fervently seeking to raise the relatively low expectations surrounding Palin's performance and pre-empt a Republican upset by praising the Alaska Governor's debating skills right up to the very start of tonight's debate in St. Louis. Speaking to the press this evening, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe described Palin as "one of the best debaters in American politics." Plouffe's comments mirror similar statements by chief Obama strategist David Axelrod and Palin's opponent in the debate itself Senator Joe Biden.

The VP debate: a perfect storm

While the US Vice Presidential debates have proven a locus for high theatre and some of the more memorable moments on the campaign trail in recent years - from Lloyd Bentsen's infamous admonishment of Dan Quayle for comparing himself to John F. Kennedy to James Stockdale's self-deprecating, "Who am I? Why am I Here?"- their impact on the course of the election itself has, in contrast, proven largely negligible, serving more as fodder for politicos within the media to debate and deconstruct ad nauseam than a soapbox through which to change the hearts and minds of the American electorate. Nothing illustrates this more vividly, perhaps, than the marginal impact Quayle's inept and widely-panned and parodied debate performance would prove to have on George H.W. Bush's relatively assured victory over Michael Dukakis in 1988.

A perfect storm with respect to issues of age, experience and gender, however, has conspired to ensure that tonight's debate in St. Louis between Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and Delaware's Senator Joe Biden will prove the most important of its kind since vice presidential candidates first squared up in 1976, and may ultimately prove the definitive turning point for both parties with little over five weeks left before election day. With America facing the prospect of its commander-in-chief entering office at the age of 72 in the event of a victory for Senator John McCain, the question of "who comes next" in the presidential line of succession has grown in importance amongst prospective voters in this election, placing as a result far greater scrutiny on the readiness of both candidates on the bottom of the tickets to lead than in previous election cycles.

With the spotlight growing ever more brighter, it should come as no surprise therefore that Palin's readiness to lead, rather than foreign policy or economics, has arguably become the all-consuming issue surrounding the McCain camp itself. Palin was the darling of the Republican Party and the new face of social conservatism only a month ago. Now, increased media attention over the meltdown of the world's financial markets, a string of gaffe-filled interviews with Charlie Rose, Sean Hannity and Katie Couric, and the subsequent call from numerous conservative commentators for her removal from the ticket has meant that the "Palin Bounce" briefly enjoyed by the McCain campaign has quickly been eroded by uncertainty over her qualifications.

Tonight has become very much a referendum on Palin herself: finally free from the straightjacket of her media handlers, if she fails to sufficiently replicate the energy, conviction and, most importantly, clarity of her coming-out speech at the Republican National Convention and appease concerns over her recent missteps, this debate may ultimately prove a far more damaging blow to John McCain's Oval Office aspirations than his mishandling last week of the congressional deliberation on the $700 financial bailout package.

Relegated to the fringes of electoral coverage since his unveiling in Denver, Biden now has an important and delicate role to play. Faced with the challenge of debating a female opponent with exceptionally low levels of expectation, Biden must shun his infamously verbose and long-winded style of rhetoric to match Palin's snappy sound bytes while finding an appropriate tone on the night with which to underscore the frailties of his opponent. But he must not come across as domineering, patriarchal, snide or misogynistic - a balancing act that George H.W. Bush found difficult when facing Geraldine Ferraro in 1984.

Failure to do so, given the lingering alienation of female voters within the Democratic Party created as a result of Obama's defeat of Hillary Clinton in the primary season, and the willingness of the McCain-Palin ticket to cry sexism in recent weeks with respect to the media's increasingly critical coverage, will inadvertently place the impetus back into Republican hands, and prove far more costly than any of the other more benign missteps "Joe being Joe" has made so far on the campaign trail.

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