Like the first debate, who "won" or "lost" last night's Joe/Sarah showdown is simply determined in the eye of the beholder. If you're a partisan Republican, Gov. Palin won. If you're a partisan Democrat, it was Sen. Biden. The following things are true, however:
First: It was nice to see two candidates who seemed to genuinely enjoy one another. Now, we'll return to the McCain/Obama frostiness.
Second: Somewhat incredibly, neither candidate made a major gaffe.
Third: Biden unquestionably won the debate on substance. He showed a command of the issues far beyond what someone with Palin's limited experience could possibly have, and he's playing the old, wise hand to Obama's freshness. It's an effective combination.
Fourth: Palin performed very well. Admittedly, the bar was quite low. Many who tuned in (including myself) wondered if she would be able to demonstrate the ability to form complete sentences or tie her own shoes. However, not only was she adequate, she held her own against one of Washington's most seasoned veterans, attacking Obama's record, lauding McCain's maverick tendencies, and -- in perhaps the most effective line of attack we've seen to date -- brought up Biden's own criticisms of Obama's naivete from the primary season. Palin did a fair job distancing a potential McCain/Palin administration from Bush and Cheney, but a better command of the issues would have helped in this area.
Fifth: Palin's performance likely (well, hopefully) will reassure many of those who have broken away in recent weeks from McCain that she is, in fact, sufficiently competent. For better or for worse, that was last night's challenge, and she passed with flying colors. For the first time since her convention speech, she looked like she belonged on the national stage.
Sixth: It's time to let Palin be Palin. Blast her out to the masses, aimed at swing voters, not just at scripted, rah-rah campaign rallies in front of people who are already in her corner. She's going to make mistakes -- the key is to allow swing voters to feel comfortable with the way she's able to connect with them. She's a valuable asset, and last night should have proven to Team Maverick that she can hold her own.