Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated debate of the U.S. presidential campaign season takes place Thursday in St. Louis, Missouri. The two candidates for vice president, Republican Sarah Palin and Democrat Joe Biden, will take part in their one and only debate. The political stakes are high for both candidates, but especially for Alaska Governor Palin, a newcomer to the national political stage. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has a preview from Washington.
Thursday's debate will be Governor Palin's toughest test to date.
Palin energized social conservatives within the Republican Party after her surprise selection as Republican presidential nominee John McCain's vice presidential running mate. But in recent television interviews, Palin has seemed unsteady at times and given halting answers.
Some conservative commentators have suggested she is not up to the job of being vice president.
Palin responded to her critics during a recent interview with CBS News.
"Well, not only am I ready, but willing and able to serve as vice president with Senator McCain if Americans so bless us and privilege us with the opportunity of serving them," she said.
Senator McCain continues to insist that the excitement she has generated among Republicans outweighs the concerns about her lack of national and foreign policy experience.
"I'm very proud of the excitement that Governor Palin has ignited with our party and around this country," he said. "It is a level of excitement and enthusiasm, frankly, that I have not seen before."
Palin faces an experienced Washington hand in Senator Joe Biden of Delaware.
Biden was first elected to the Senate in 1972 and has years of experience on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in dealing with foreign policy issues. He is also a fierce partisan who has waged two losing campaigns for the White House and now serves as Democratic nominee Barack Obama's chief attack dog.
"So don't tell me who is on the side of middle class people trying to make it," he said. "It is not George Bush and it is not John McCain!"
Biden is prone to verbal gaffes and has been criticized in the past for talking too much.
But it is Governor Palin who may have the most to prove in Thursday's debate.
"She is really on the spot. Biden, of course, has to be watched for making gaffes and such," says Bruce Miroff, a political expert at the State University of New York at Albany. "But the focus of the debate is overwhelmingly in the eyes of the audience likely to be on Palin and whether she can show herself to be someone who is in her league, or whether she is out of her league."
Curiosity about Palin is driving interest in Thursday's debate.
But University of Virginia expert Larry Sabato notes that historically voters do not make a decision based on how they feel about the vice presidential candidates.
"But on the whole, when those final independents [voters] make up their minds as we approach Election Day, they are going to be choosing between two men, one of whom will be sitting in the Oval office," he says. "That is the focus of the election."
After Thursday's debate, two more presidential debates remain between candidates Obama and McCain. One in Tennessee on October 7, the other in New York on October 15.