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Both candidates have much to prove

PHILADELPHIA -- This is the night that political junkies -- and there are millions of you out there this year -- have waited for. At 8 p.m., Sarah Palin and Joe Biden meet in their only debate of the campaign season at Washington University in St...

PHILADELPHIA -- This is the night that political junkies -- and there are millions of you out there this year -- have waited for.

At 8 p.m., Sarah Palin and Joe Biden meet in their only debate of the campaign season at Washington University in St. Louis.

While the focus is on the Republican far more than on the Democrat, both candidates have a lot to prove.

Palin, who remains extremely popular with the GOP base, will be out to show that she has the depth of knowledge required of a would-be president -- after doing television interviews that have generated ridicule from liberal commentators (as well as late-night comedians) and angst among some conservatives.

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."

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Parker urged Palin to leave the ticket, imploring: "Do it for your country."

A poll released Wednesday showed the degree to which the public's view of the Alaska governor has soured since her well-received speech at the Republican convention.

Immediately after the convention, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that Americans considered Palin "qualified" to be vice president by 52 percent to 39 percent. In the new survey, completed on Monday, the verdict was "not qualified," 51 percent to 37 percent.

Biden, who remains the all-but-forgotten man of the 2008 campaign, will be out to prove himself an asset to the Democratic ticket -- by demonstrating command of the issues, avoiding any appearance of condescension toward Palin, and keeping his brain ahead of his sometimes too-quick mouth.

Biden can be gaffe-prone. Last week he told CBS: "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," said James Riddlesperger, a professor of political science at Texas Christian University.

The format for their meeting could help protect both candidates from themselves; it forces them to keep their answers short.

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Under the rules, moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS will ask the questions, which can be about any topic. Each candidate will have 90 seconds to respond with a two-minute conversation to follow. In the presidential debate last Friday between McCain and Barack Obama, answers lasted two minutes and the conversation five.

Coming into the debate, the Republicans are in need of something to give them a spark. Ever since the financial crisis began almost three weeks ago, the political indicators have been moving in Obama's direction.

He now leads McCain by an average of five percentage points in the national polls. And the numbers in battleground states have shown a strong Democratic trend.

McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.

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