Biden and Palin debate

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The VP candidates discuss the economic bail-out plan

The two US vice-presidential candidates have traded blows on the financial crisis, climate change and foreign policy in their only TV debate.

Democrat Joe Biden sought to link Republican presidential candidate John McCain to the policies of President Bush, saying he was “no maverick”.

Republican Sarah Palin defended herself against claims of inexperience and said the McCain ticket would bring change.

Observers said she appeared more confident than in recent TV interviews.

The debate at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, was seen as particularly crucial for Mrs Palin, whose ratings have fallen amid concerns about her ability to lead.

The BBC’s Jane O’Brien in Washington says Mrs Palin played to her strengths and her image as a mother in touch with ordinary Americans.

For the most part she spoke fluently but simply about the economy, climate change and the war in Iraq, our correspondent says, and there were few of the stumbling gaffes that have become the staple of late-night comedy shows.

Practised lines

Asked by moderator Gwen Ifill who was at fault for the current problems with the US banking system, Mrs Palin blamed predatory lenders and “greed and corruption” on Wall Street.

She also urged Americans to exercise personal responsibility and not take on debt they could not afford.

It would be a travesty if we were to quit now in Iraq

Sarah Palin
Republican vice-presidential nominee

Mr McCain would “put partisanship aside” to help resolve the crisis, she said, and had raised the alarm over mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac long ago.

She said “Joe six-packs and hockey moms across the country” – referring to middle-class voters – needed to say “never again” to Wall Street chiefs.

She accused Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama of seeking to raise taxes but Mr Biden rejected that claim.

He said the economic crisis was evidence that the policies of the past eight years had been “the worst we’ve ever had”.

‘Dead wrong’

On foreign policy, Mrs Palin accused Mr Obama of refusing to acknowledge that the “surge” strategy of extra troops had worked.

“It would be a travesty if we were to quit now in Iraq,” she said, describing Mr Obama’s plan to withdraw combat troops a “white flag of surrender”.

Joe Biden attacks foreign policy claim

Mr Biden countered by saying Mr McCain had been “dead wrong” on Iraq and had yet to present a plan to end the conflict.

“You’ve got to have a time line to draw down the troops and shift responsibility to the Iraqis,” he said.

He said the US was wasting $10bn a month in Iraq while ignoring the real front line in the fight against terrorism, Afghanistan.

The pair also sparred on the issue of climate change.

Mrs Palin, governor of energy-rich Alaska, said human activities were a factor in climate change but that climatic cycles were also an element. She urged US energy independence as part of the answer.

Mr Biden pointed to climate change as one of the major points on which the two campaigns differed, saying: “If you don’t understand what the cause is, it’s virtually impossible to come up with a solution.”

He said he and Mr Obama backed “clean-coal” technology and accused Mr McCain of having voted against funding for alternative energy projects and seeing only one solution: “Drill, drill, drill.”

Poll shift

According to a Pew Research Center poll, two-thirds of voters planned to follow the debate, far more than in 2004.

McCain and running mate Sarah Palin at Republican convention in St Paul on 4 September 2008

A new poll by the Washington Post suggests that 60% of voters now see Mrs Palin as lacking the experience to be an effective president.

One-third say they are less likely to vote for the Senator McCain, as a result.

Independent voters, who are not affiliated to either political party, have the most sceptical views of the 44-year-old Alaska governor.

Another poll, for CBS News, gives Senator Barack Obama 49% to 40% for Mr McCain.

It is the latest in a series of opinion polls that have shown a significant shift in the direction of Mr Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, since the economic crisis began.

Mrs Palin, whose fiery speech at last month’s Republican convention inspired Christian conservatives, produces unusually strong feelings – both positive and negative – among voters.

Although Mrs Palin has succeeded in mobilising conservative Republicans, her key challenge is to appeal to the swing voters who could determine who will win the battleground states, analysts say.

In particular, she needs to win over the “Wal-Mart moms” – white, working-class married women.

A recent poll of customers of discount giant Wal-Mart suggested that Mr McCain was slightly ahead with this group in Ohio and Florida, while Mr Obama was leading in Virginia and Colorado.

Meanwhile, the McCain campaign is scaling back its operations in another swing state, Michigan, effectively conceding the advantage to Mr Obama there, the Associated Press reports.

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