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Palin, Biden ready to face off in St. Louis debate

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  • Joe Biden, Sarah Palin to face off in their only debate Thursday night
  • Stakes high for Palin, who is said to be eager to prove herself
  • Biden is political veteran who must avoid embarrassing gaffes
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Sen. Joe Biden and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin will face off for their first and only debate in the presidential race Thursday night, an event pitting a political veteran against a political newcomer.

Sen. Joe Biden, a political veteran, will face off against Palin, a political novice.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has been preparing since last week for Thursday's debate.

Both candidates have recently tried to lower expectations leading into the debate, where topics will range from domestic to foreign policy.

The debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, will start at 9 p.m. ET and be moderated by PBS's Gwen Ifill.

For Palin, the stakes are high. After skyrocketing onto the national stage and energizing the Republican faithful, the first-term Alaskan governor has struggled recently to regain her footing after several shaky network TV interviews with ABC's Charlie Gibson and CBS's Katie Couric. View memorable moments from other debates »

Palin said Tuesday that she's different.

"I think they're just not used to someone coming in from the outside saying, 'You know what? It's time that normal Joe Six-Pack American is finally represented in the position of vice presidency,' and I think that that's kind of taken some people off-guard," she said in a radio interview with conservative host Hugh Hewitt.

Palin's interview gave the vice presidential candidate a chance to showcase elements of her life story and demonstrate some of the folksiness that's been central to her political success.

It's exactly the kind of interview that voters can expect to see from the governor in the coming weeks, according to a Palin adviser, who recognized that there is hunger in Republican circles and among the public at large to see a less-scripted, more authentic candidate.

"We're going to be continue to put her in settings where she has an opportunity to shine, to be on offense," the adviser said. "We've gotten very good feedback from the public from Hugh Hewitt interview."

The adviser suggested that the campaign's efforts at damage control after Palin's interview with Couric may have been hampered by the fact that the governor wasn't doing more friendly interviews to counter her flubs on Russia and the congressional bailout bill, which have reverberated throughout the blogosphere and even turned Palin into a punch line on "Saturday Night Live."

"We acknowledge that perhaps she should have been out there doing more," the adviser said, arguing that "it's not fair to judge her off one or two sound bites" from the network interviews.

Palin is apparently eager to take on a more outspoken role, both in interviews and in her stump speech, after Thursday's vice presidential debate in order to remind voters of what it is they like about her. Watch debate, then tell us who won

"She connects really well, and she's good at it, and she wants to be doing more of it, and she will do more of it," the adviser said.

For the Democrats, Biden has served in the Senate for 35 years. His biggest challenge will be to stick to the script. He's known for making off-the-cuff remarks, including some gaffes. Video Watch analysts weigh in on Thursday's debate »

A Biden aide said the senator is ready. He left Wednesday's debate preparation in Delaware to vote on the economic recovery bill in Congress.

"I haven't read the package yet, but my anticipation is I'm going to vote 'yes.' But I want to see. That's why I'm going home now to get briefed on the details," Biden said.

Biden campaign aides are actively playing up Palin's debating skills. His spokesman called Palin "a leviathan of forensics," a classic example of the campaign tactic of raising the expectations of their opponent and lowering their own.

"She's very skilled, and she'll be well-prepared," Barack Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, said Sunday night while flying with Biden back to Delaware to help him get ready.

"As you saw at the convention, she can be very good. So, I think it would be foolish to assume that this isn't going to be a really challenging debate. We're preparing for that, on that assumption."

Taking it one step further, Biden spokesman David Wade added, "he's going in here to debate a leviathan of forensics who has debated five times, and she's undefeated."

Biden has a difficult task on his hand: not coming across as condescending with his decades of experience and not adopting a tone that could appear as though he's treating Palin differently because she's a woman.

"I think Gov. Palin is a skilled politician," Axelrod said. "She got elected in a very tough political arena against tough opponents, and we're going to treat her with the respect that she deserves. And I think that she would expect that; I think voters should expect that."

Axelrod argued that at the end of the day, the choice voters make is between the candidates at the top of the ticket and not the vice presidential candidates.


However, he said vice presidential nominees have a harder time preparing because they need to not only defend their own positions but those of their running mates, as well as knowing where both candidates on the opposing ticket stand.

Obama and John McCain, meanwhile, have two more debates before the November 4 general election: a second debate October 7 at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, and a final debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, on October 15.

CNN's Sandra Endo, Peter Hamby, Ed Hornick and Alexander Mooney contributed to this report.

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