WASHINGTON — Sarah Palin faces a huge problem in Thursday night's vice presidential debate: She's in danger of becoming a national punch line.
As a result, the Republican's 90-minute debate with Democratic rival Joe Biden could be her last big chance to persuade voters that she's got what it takes to run the country.
"She has a lot to prove," said James Riddlesperger, a professor of political science at Texas Christian University, "and this is a real opportunity for her to do so."
Biden also faces some risks. "He's like the champion getting into the ring with Rocky Balboa. He can't appear to be a bully," said vice presidential scholar Timothy Walch. The longtime Delaware senator also has a history of putting his foot in his mouth, and a gaffe while debating Palin could cost him.
The debate, though, is largely about Palin, the Alaska governor who was barely known in the lower 48 until John McCain put her on the ticket just before last month's Republican convention.
She was an instant hit, at least with Republicans, charming the GOP convention with her plainspoken, frontier woman ways and her solid conservative credentials.
Since then, however, the nation has seen another Palin: Carefully managed, kept under wraps, often scripted and seemingly out of her depth. A poll released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center reported, "opinions about Sarah Palin have become increasingly negative."
The Sept. 27-29 survey found that 51 percent of the public thinks she's not qualified to be president, and 37 percent think she is qualified. Just after the GOP convention last month, some 52 percent thought she was ready.
Worse, Palin has become the butt of late night jokes.
Saturday Night Live comedian Tina Fey's dead-on impression of Palin has parodied her as a rambling, perky celebrity unfamiliar with the day's biggest issues.
Experts say Palin has done too little to overcome that image. Her interviews last week with CBS' Katie Couric have been widely ridiculed. Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker led the charge. Palin's TV interviews, she wrote, "revealed an attractive, earnest, confident candidate. Who is Clearly Out of Her League."
Parker urged Palin to leave the race, imploring her to "Do it for your country."
Couric asked Palin what she thought about the $700 billion Wall Street rescue package pending before Congress.
Palin's reply: "But ultimately, what the bailout does is help those who are concerned about the health-care reform that is needed to help shore up our economy, helping the — oh, it's got to be all about job creation, too, shoring up our economy and putting it back on the right track. So health-care reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to accompany tax reductions and tax relief for Americans. And trade, we've got to see trade as opportunity, not as a competitive, um, scary thing. But one in five jobs being created in the trade sector today, we've got to look at that as more opportunity. All those things under the umbrella of job creation. This bailout is part of that."
Pundit jaws also dropped when Palin — who got her first passport last year — talked about foreign policy.
"As (Russian leader Vladimir) Putin rears his head and comes into the airspace of the United States of America, where do they go?" she asked on CBS. "It's Alaska . . . It is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right there, they are right next to our state."
However, Biden, a U.S. senator since 1973, knows that he has to be careful to avoid looking like a Washington know-it-all. "It could be very difficult for him to escape looking condescending," said Riddlesperger.
Biden also is gaffe-prone. Last week he told CBS that, "When the stock market crashed, Franklin D. Roosevelt got on the television and didn't just talk about the, you know, the princes of greed. He said, 'Look, here's what happened.' ''
The stock market crashed in 1929 and Roosevelt didn't become president until 1933. And when FDR spoke to the nation, it was on radio because television wasn't available yet.
"His critics are going to be looking for something like that," Riddlesperger said.
McCain strategists have tried to show that she's comfortable in the big leagues. She visited the United Nations last week and met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and others.
But she still has to endure jokes. David Letterman said that when McCain and Palin are together it seems like "Take Your Daughter to Work Day."
"When you become a punch line, you've got a problem," said Wayne Lesperance, a political science professor at New Hampshire's New England College. "She has to come across as serious, studied."
Palin has been practicing for the debate at McCain's Sedona, Ariz. ranch, with campaign officials standing in for Biden. Biden has been in Wilmington, Del., with Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm playing Palin in their mock debates.
One wrong word or convoluted sentence by either candidate will be replayed over and over by the media and on the Internet, and could become the frame by which the debate is most remembered.
Speaking at a rally Monday in Columbus, Ohio, Palin said she was looking forward to Thursday's debate.
"So I guess it's my turn now," she said. "And I do look forward to Thursday night. I look forward to seeing him, too. I've never met him before, but I've been hearin' about his Senate speeches since I was in, like, second grade. He's sounding pretty doggone confident like he's going to win . . . .This is the same Senator Biden who said the other day that the University of Delaware would trounce the Ohio State Buckeyes."
Actually, the two schools don't play each other in football.
Several attendees at the Columbus rally stood behind Palin.
"I think she fine. She's got as much experience as Obama, and he's trying to be president," said Roger Beloat, 66. "He (McCain) can't make a change — that would show indecision. I wish the other side would make a change."
For all the expectations about Thursday night's showdown, vice presidential debates rarely affect elections, even if they sometimes make for compelling theater.
In 1988, for instance, Democratic vice presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen delivered the put-down line that made the debate memorable when he coldly told Republican Dan Quayle, "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." Five weeks later, Quayle's ticket, topped by George H. W. Bush, won the election easily.
Lesperance of New England College argued that in close races, vice presidential debates can matter. The 1976 clash between Democrat Walter Mondale and Republican Bob Dole was often viewed as an important boost for the Democrats.
Dole railed against "Democrat wars" as Democratic nominee Mondale remained calm and statesmanlike, adding gravitas to the ticket topped by still largely unknown Jimmy Carter.
"If this race is close, the vice presidential debate matters," said Lesperance.
That's why the stakes are so high for Palin. Biden is a known quantity.
"If she's credible, she's been successful," said Walch. But he warned that the public wouldn't judge her by Thursday's performance alone. "The outcome could depend on how this plays on Saturday Night Live this week."
(William Douglas contributed to this story.)
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