A great debater — or evader?

A GREAT DEBATER — OR EVADER?…. I was on a conference call over the weekend that the Obama campaign held for reporters, and someone brought up expectations for Thursday night’s debate. The aides argued, without hesitation, that Sarah Palin excelled in her gubernatorial campaign debates, and they expect her to deliver “a great performance.”

The comments probably drew a guffaw or two in some circles. There were low expectations for Palin when she was named to the ticket, but after the political world saw her fielding questions from Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric, Palin now has a distinct advantage — no one could possibly do as poorly in this debate as political insiders expect her to do.

Indeed, at this point, if Palin shows up and speaks in complete sentences, I fully expect the media to lavish her with high praise.

It’s probably too late to change those expectations, but I’ve had a chance to watch a fair amount of Palin’s debate performances, and I have to say, anyone hoping to see Palin embarrass herself in St. Louis is going to be very disappointed.

The estimable Jed Lewison put together this clip collection, which helps show Palin’s aptitude for the debate format. In fact, looking around the media today, there are plenty of reports about Palin’s strength as a debater for any lingering skeptics. The New York Times reports on her ability to exude confidence in a debate. The Politico talks about her “formidable” skills and her “big debate wins.” The Los Angeles Times highlighted warnings about underestimating her debating skills. And the Wall Street Journal had an item about how impressive she is in this format.

It’s worth noting, of course, that judging the strengths of a debater is a little tricky, and more than a little subjective. After watching quite a few clips from Alaska, I wouldn’t say Palin is good at talking about policy details or making complex issues understandable, two qualities that might ordinarily be helpful in a debate.

But Palin excelled in different areas — she evaded questions well, she filibustered effectively, and she’d prepared a series of superficial quips that seemed to connect with her audience. If she can do this again tomorrow, Palin will probably do just fine.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.