Listening to surrogates and aides to John McCain on Thursday, one is left with the impression that there is no great need for Gov. Sarah Palin to actually answer questions during tonight's vice presidential debate.
Indeed, the spin coming from McCain surrogates and strategists is that all Palin has to do is pass a sort of artificial personality test, in which she strikes an emotional thread with the average voter -- question, answers, or intellectual capacity be damned.
Such were the talking points mere hours before the debate in St. Louis, which peaked with Sen. Joe Lieberman - a man not unaccustomed to the pressures of such a forum - actually proclaiming that Palin's relative ignorance helped her relate to "regular people."
"She's not lived in the world of Washington, so she doesn't know every detail of all the questions senators deal with," Lieberman told NBC's Andrea Mitchell. "But, frankly, that's her strength. I think that's why a lot of regular people out across America think she's going to be their voice."
Mitchell interjected, "Senator, she wants to be a heartbeat away from the presidency. You know, that doesn't mean just being an average mom, it means bringing other skills."
But Lieberman stayed on the point, stating later, "I think tonight is not a kind of final college exam. I think the point is who is she as a person... Whether she can answer every detailed question, I don't think that ultimately matters to the American people so long as they think she passes those other personal thresholds."
It was the ultimate setting of expectations -- a political get-out-of-jail-free card should Palin stumble this evening. And it wasn't an isolated incident. Over on Fox News, Chris Wallace was relaying a conversation with a McCain "strategist" in which the metrics for debate success were once again defined in strictly personal terms.
"They say they want to show that she is plain spoken, that she relates to Joe Six-Pack and embrace the contrast her to a smooth-talking Washington insider like Joe Biden," Wallace reported. "I said: 'But what if she does not know some of the answer to something?' They said, 'Look, she should not be embarrassed by that. She should say 'I'm not a Washington insider. I'm going to learn about that but I was a reformer in Alaska and I shook things up.'"
Earlier in the day on Fox News, McCain aide Meg Stapleton was also playing up Palin's "Joe Six-Pack" attributes, even arguing that Palin's "experience as an ordinary American" qualified her to be "one heartbeat away" from the Oval Office... "god forbid."
"So if it's the economic crisis, she can certainly speak to the fact that she carries a mortgage. She's got kids ready to go to college, she has a son who is also heading off to the military. So from a military perspective, she is engaged just like any ordinary American. So if she is one heartbeat away, as she is one heartbeat away as a vice presidential candidate, and she assumes the presidency, god forbid -- in terms of John McCain, I don't wish ill, but as your question points -- if she becomes president of the United States, she is ready, and that is because she has the experience of an ordinary American who can get in there and knows what is on people's minds and what people need."