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Exam night for Sarah Palin

CAMPAIGN '08: DEBATE REACTION

Whether retiree or college student, all eyes were on the Alaska governor during the debate.

October 03, 2008|Nicholas Riccardi and P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writers

ENGLEWOOD, COLO. — John Rogers pushed his oxygen tank to the side, settled into his chair and summed up what everyone in the room at the Meridian Retirement Community here was thinking.

"Biden's just there," he said as the vice presidential candidates headed to the stage Thursday night for their only debate. "But everyone wants to see Palin."

As residents of this eight-story complex followed the 90-minute debate, their response was all about the Alaska governor. They chortled -- some enthusiastically, some derisively -- when she uncorked one-liners like, "Say it ain't so, Joe." They nodded appreciatively or scowled when she talked about taxes and drilling for domestic oil.

"I was surprised," Rogers, an 82-year-old architect who supports John McCain, said afterward. "She's done pretty well."

It was a much different scene 850 miles east at Washington University, where hundreds of students watched a television feed of the debate that was happening just a few buildings away on their St. Louis campus.

Chiraag Alur, a 20-year-old from Texas, clutched two red shirts reading "Palin won," but that wasn't how he felt. He described himself as a lifelong Republican who had been planning to vote for McCain -- until he named Palin as his running mate.

"This is a Democrat town, and a Democrat school, but I didn't care," said Alur, a junior studying anthropology. "Now, I can't believe I'm saying this, but I'm going to vote Democrat. Palin has no experience to be in Washington, let alone being that close to the White House."

The crowd inside the Danforth University Center was clearly in Biden's corner, cheering when the Delaware senator bashed Vice President Cheney or the Bush administration, and equally vocal against Palin.

Allison Coffman, a 20-year-old junior majoring in Latin American studies, covered her face and groaned when Palin repeatedly said she would address only parts of certain questions.

"The only thing that makes sense is that McCain picked her to get my vote because I'm a woman," Coffman said. "She doesn't bring anything to the table. And the fact that she managed to never directly answer a question -- and supported a foreign policy where our leaders wouldn't sit down and talk with other leaders -- is terrifying."

At the Colorado retirement home, the residents knew about Palin's recent embarrassments in televised interviews in which she couldn't identify President Bush's doctrine of preemptive war or name a Supreme Court decision other than Roe vs. Wade. But even some who disliked her acknowledged that she performed well.

"She did much better than I anticipated," said Harriet Strong, 78, a retired school psychologist and registered Democrat. Of Biden, she added: "I think he's very intelligent. I think she is too, but she has to work harder."

Jeanne Van Voorhis, a registered independent who had leaned toward Obama, said she might change her mind after hearing Palin speak about energy production and middle-class values. "She's very good at saying what she believes in a very straightforward way," Van Voorhis said.

Not everyone was positive about Palin's folksy performance. "I don't want my vice president to say, 'Oh, heck,'" said Mary McCarty, "and I don't want her winking."

In St. Louis, some remained undecided. Sushma Tatineni, a 21-year-old senior and pre-med student, hoped to get a sense from the debate of which candidate she'd support. She backs Obama's social policies, and is intrigued by McCain's experience in Washington. But her biggest concerns are what the candidates would do with regard to healthcare and the economy.

"I have friends that graduated last year and had good jobs in banking, and now are out of work and have huge college loans," Tatineni said. "It makes me nervous about going into the real world."

As Tatineni left the center, she was leaning toward supporting Obama -- but still remained a bit unsure. "I didn't learn that much," Tatineni said. "I'll wait to see how the next few weeks, and how the presidential debates, go before I decide."

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nicholas.riccardi@ latimes.com

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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