ST. LOUIS, Missouri (AFP) — Americans of both political parties waited nervously for Thursday's hotly-anticipated debate between their picks for vice-president, seen as a crucial test for Republican Sarah Palin and no sure bet for Democrat Joe Biden.
Concerns about Palin's readiness to take the national stage have mounted in recent days following interviews in which the first-time Alaska governor has sometimes been lost for words when faced with tough questioning.
But Democrats are also in suspense, worrying that Biden, a 35-year veteran of the Senate, could lose points by patronizing Palin or appearing to condescend.
Palin burst onto the national scene when John McCain picked her as his running mate in late August, energizing conservative Republicans with her positions on abortion and gun rights and her background as a moose-hunting, deeply Christian mother of five from the northern frontier.
Her speech brought the house down at the Republican convention at the beginning of September, but some Republicans now fear a fiasco as she squares off against Delaware senator Biden in their sole clash ahead of the November 4 presidential election.
Biden has been called uncontrollably verbose and a "gaffe machine," and was even asked in a Democratic primary debate if he could control those qualities with "the discipline you need on the world stage."
He also faces the prospect of being eclipsed in Thursday's showdown by Palin's star power .
"Biden is in a difficult situation," said James Pfiffner, professor of public policy at Virginia's George Mason University.
"He is someone who knows an awful lot about foreign policy... but the star of this show is clearly Governor Palin," he said on the eve of the debate.
In recent days Palin has faced widespread ridicule for the few interviews she has granted since joining the Republican ticket, including for citing Alaska's proximity to Canada and Russia as giving her foreign policy experience.
At least two renowned conservative columnists -- keen to back Palin when she was announced as McCain's running mate -- are in open revolt and calling her unqualified for the job.
Writing in the conservative National Review, columnist Kathleen Parker said Palin should step down, while Dallas Morning News editorial columnist Rod Dreher wrote that he is no longer backing McCain and Palin.
Some political analysts and experts said Palin was facing her most crucial test just 34 days before Americans head to voting booths.
"It's make-or-break for her in the sense that, in a three-game series, her record so far is one and one: the convention and the interviews," Washington University history professor Peter Kastor told AFP.
"This (debate) could be what seals the deal. If she does extremely well or extremely poorly, obviously it will be the debate that people say defines Sarah Palin's candidacy," Kastor said.
Joel Goldstein, a presidency scholar at St. Louis University, said the Biden-Palin debate has a "unique level of fascination," primarily because there has been "so little exposure so far of Governor Palin."
Goldstein and other experts described it as the most anticipated vice-presidential debate since they debuted back in 1976.
In the build-up to Thursday's showdown, Palin acquaintances from Alaska warned not to underestimate her.
Anchorage Daily News editor Larry Persily described how Palin "flummoxed her rivals like Muhammad Ali around the ring."
Tony Knowles, former governor of Alaska, said Palin "is an attractive candidate with a unique ability to emotionally connect with the audience."
Palin, 44, recently told a rally in Ohio that she had never met Biden, 65. "But I've been hearing about his Senate speeches since I was in, like, second grade," she quipped.
When asked by CBS if that was a risky thing to say considering Palin's own running mate is 72, the governor replied: "Oh no, it's nothing negative at all."
"He's got a tremendous amount of experience and, you know, I'm the new energy, the new face."
Last month Biden told a campaign rally that he would not let things get personal at the debate.
"The way I was raised is: I never, ever, ever attack the other person," Biden said. "I will take issue with her as strongly as I can."
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